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The Palin/Biden Debate, Re-enacted

by: Jill Richardson

Fri Sep 25, 2009 at 23:27:51 PM PDT

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Today, Michael Pollan participated in a panel discussion at University of Wisconsin. The panel consisted of two farmers, a UW student who grew up on the farm, and Michael Pollan. The UW student had an enormous smile plastered on her face. Something told me that she wasn't there to talk about her family's organic farm. And you know what? If you're looking to put Michael Pollan in a difficult position, it was clever. It reminded me of the Palin/Biden Vice Presidential Debate. The last thing Biden could do was aggressively debate Palin, as it would put the audience on her side as the victim of a bully. Or, as Saturday Night Live's fake Joe Biden put it:

My goal tonight was a simple one: to come up here and at no point seem like a condescending, ego-maniacal bully. and I'll be honest: I think I nailed it. There were moments when I wanted to say, "This lady's a dummy!" But I didn't.

Michael Pollan nailed it too. This cute, cheerleadery, young girl spouted off every single Big Ag talking point in the book. (I kept expecting her to start winking, Sarah Palin-style.) The last thing he could do was pick a fight with a student. That would turn into an ugly incident that would make national headlines. The many Farm Bureau members in the audience would make sure of it. His response to the student was nothing short of brilliant.

(Just a caveat here: Maybe Pollan didn't think she was a dummy. I don't want to put my words in his mouth. He was incredibly respectful to her, and for all I know, he thought she had something valuable to say. Maybe he was impressed that a student had the courage to stand up to a national celebrity like himself.)

Jill Richardson :: The Palin/Biden Debate, Re-enacted
The first speaker - a small, sustainable farmer who raised poultry on grass - was not there for a fight. She was hilarious and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to her speak, but she didn't, in my view, make the point that sustainable agriculture is better than industrial agriculture. She mentioned that raising chickens on grass makes sense because they poop a lot, eat vegetable trimmings (like carrot greens), and they eat the bugs. She rotates her chickens so that their manure is applied in a reasonable, healthy amount to the grass. She noted that government regulations and a lack of processing facilities make it rather difficult and expensive to get the birds into an edible form. These are all points that I wish she would have contrasted with factory chicken farms, but she did not. Then again, with the amount of farm bureau people in the audience, she might have had a lynch mob after her if she had done that.

Next up was Mr. Token Big Bad Monoculture Guy (as he jokingly called himself), a dairy farmer with 2500 cows. I haven't been to his farm but I've been to a 700 cow farm, so I'd bet I'm pretty familiar with how he raises his cows. In addition to what I saw on the 700 cow farm (cows in barns that never graze on pasture, who are fed a high calorie diet and milked three times a day in a milking parlor), he also had an anaerobic digester to produce energy from his cows' manure and algae ponds (fed with manure) to attempt to make fuel from algae. He was building an aquaponic tilapia system much like the one at Growing Power, and he also fed his cows flax to increase the omega-3 content of their milk. He hopes to extract oil from the algae in the future (so far it's not really possible in a cost effective way) to perhaps feed the oil to the cows because it will boost the milk's omega-3 content. Should such a system work out, the cows' manure would feed the algae, which would in turn feed the cows, thus producing high omega-3 milk. He was also a big fan of GMOs and he told us how they allow him to spray no pesticides on his fields (which ignores the fact that the corn generates pesticides itself, so the pesticides are still there). And he noted advances in industrial ag over the last half century - they use less bad pesticides and less antibiotics than they used to.

Then came the student. She told us she came from "God's country" and spoke about how her farm had been in the family for generations, ever since her ancestors came to America through Ellis Island. She is living her dream and she cannot imagine working in any field other than agriculture. There was little substance to what she had to say. She rattled off the Big Ag mantra about America having the safest, most abundant food supply in the world a few times. She also used the biotech industry's favorite statistic: We must double food production by 2050 to feed a global population of 9 billion people. She sang the praises of a factory beef farmer she met on her summer internship. She said that 99% of Wisconsin's farmers are family farmers. That's a favorite statistic of Big Ag, because it totally masks the fact that 90+% of American farms, big and small, are family-owned, and just because a farm is owned by a family, that doesn't make it sustainable, humane, ethical, or socially responsible.

Last, she gave us a variation on the typical "grandfather's farming methods" line (i.e. if a farmer were still farming the way his grandpa did, he wouldn't stay in business very long). She said that if her grandfather were here and she proposed going back to farming the way he did at the beginning of his career, he would say it's a bad idea. And she knows this because she discussed it with her grandmother yesterday. If you saw the Dave Chappelle skit where Chappelle claims that, as a black man, he'd get in trouble for speaking his thoughts, but a pretty white woman could say anything so he had a pretty white woman sing his thoughts for him, it was kind of like that. It was Big Ag's talking points, presented by an adorable smiling young co-ed.

One last thing. She called Michael Pollan "polarizing." Not to mention that the Farm Bureau staged protests last night with farmers wearing green "In Defense of Farming" shirts (a pun on Pollan's bestseller In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto). So that was the set up for Michael Pollan to respond to. If I were him, I'm not sure I could have done it. And... he was amazing.

I believe Pollan began by commending the dairy farmer on his innovation and adding that he would love to learn more about the man's farm. Then he very clearly stated that he doesn't think the world should have only one type of farming. He said he described Joel Salatin because while he realized Salatin's methods were at one extreme of the spectrum, he found them to be very thought provoking. He used the phrase "Let a hundred flowers bloom," meaning: the more diversity in farming, the better. Let's try everything and only through that will we see what works best. Of course, I couldn't resist leaning over to my friend to say, "Just watch, now they'll accuse him of being a communist." ("Let a hundred flowers bloom" is a quote by Chairman Mao.)

This calmed down the industrial farmers quite a bit, but the girl gave us another Big Ag talking point as a response. She said that most Americans are unfamiliar with farming and when they only read about two extremes of the Big Evil Factory Farms and the Small Beautiful Sustainable Farms, they will think bad thoughts about farmers. She made the point that there are all kinds of farms in the middle. And this is true - sort of. The farms in the middle are struggling. They have been struggling for a long time. They are being pushed to - as Earl Butz told them to do - "get big or get out." In the past few years, there's been a tremendous rise in the number of small farms. Of course, a small farm isn't necessarily sustainable. In many cases, however, it's impossible for an enormous farm to be sustainable (although I wouldn't rule it out). The small farmers often have farms small enough to allow them to work off the farm for their income, and they appeal to niche markets, like the farmer on the panel who sells $3/lb pasture raised chickens. The farmers in the middle (like the 2500 cow farmer) are often too big to allow for working off the farm jobs (putting pressure on the farmer to make money farming) and too big for labor intensive practices like weeding by hand. They may also be too big to appeal to niche markets. Instead, they are forced to compete with the very largest farms, and they don't have the same economies of scale as those farms. That's why we're hemorrhaging the farms in the middle. So the idea of two extremes is, in a way, a reality. But Pollan didn't make that point - he just let the student's statement stand.

Another great point Pollan made was that critique is not necessarily a bad thing, and it's not necessarily an attack. He said that he's critiquing the system, not the farmers, and he made the analogy that in our national critique of the health care system, we aren't criticizing the doctors. He said that in fact, much of his critique is directed at the people who buy the food from the farmers and process it before selling it to the consumer. And he gently noted that Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz tried to convince farmers that the interests of agribusiness - sellers of farm inputs and buyers of commodities - are the same as the interests of farmers. Actually, very often the interests of agribusiness is at odds with the interest of farmers. In fact, agribusiness exploits farmers and squeezes them off the land. (This is all true but it did not seem to sit very well with our Big Ag friends on the panel, although they didn't really make a point of strongly disagreeing with Pollan over it.)

By being so respectful and non-confrontational, Pollan did what one of my college professors would have called "lowering the emotional temperature" in the room. The whole crowd was ready for a fight when the student finished speaking, and Pollan didn't give it to them. In fact, I think he won several of them over. And once he did that, we were able to engage in a very productive and thoughtful debate. He talked about how the goals of quality food and cheap food often run at odds with one another, as do the goals of having an efficient system vs. a resilient system. He didn't directly criticize the cheap and crappy food that our food system is so good at producing, but instead pointed out how the percent of household budgets spent on food dropped over the past half-century while the percent of household budgets spent on health care grew. What he didn't say is that it's not just a monetary equation. If you spend your money upfront on good food instead of downstream on health care, you get better quality of life. In response to him, the Big Ag folks noted that because of cheap food, there are many people who get to eat at all. Yes, this is true, Pollan conceded. And it is. But he added that we externalize the costs of that so-called cheap food, because we pay with costs to the environment and with subsidies and those aren't reflected in grocery store prices. When the dairy farmer spoke of feeding the world, Pollan brought up the dumping of American commodities on the developing world and how it puts foreign farmers out of business, thus increasing hunger instead of decreasing it. The student replied that we should teach our technology (biotech, pesticides) to the developing world so they can feed themselves. Pollan returned with asking: Why not teach them Joel Salatin's style of farming? It's low input but requires lots of labor, and that's what developing countries have a lot of. In fact, when we gave India our highly capital-intensive industrial ag techniques (which require less labor), it drove many farmers off the land, creating a problem of urban poor. At the end, the student gave him a gift of a green "In Defense of Farmers" T-shirt (the uniform of yesterday's anti-Pollan protest), and he graciously accepted it. I have to admit, I was slightly disappointed because I was really hoping to do a hilarious photo diary of a raucous farmer protest. But it never happened. Pollan won over the crowd.

One last thing to say about this: I'm afraid that the word sustainable has perhaps been co-opted. Monsanto's been talking about how sustainable it is for a while, and during the Q&A portion of the panel, a question came in asking the girl why - if she loved farmers so much - she was promoting industrial techniques and large farms that drive more farmers off the land. She replied with a rambling response about how she loved all sizes of farms, and that all of them are very sustainable. Uh-huh. Sustainable the way the dairy farmer's GMO corn is sustainable? Fantastic. I might switch over my terminology from promoting "sustainable" ag to "agroecology." That's one you can't co-opt, I think. After all, someone can lie and say that industrial techniques are sustainable, but you can't pretend that any of them are based on understanding and utilizing ecology.

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Co-option (4.00 / 5)
"Organic" was co-opted. "Free-range" was co-opted. "Sustainable" was co-opted. "Agroecology" can be co-opted, too.

Did you see Jay's post about the Newsweek ranking of the 500 greenest U.S. corporations? Monsanto is on the list, at #485.

oh funny (4.00 / 4)
about Monsanto on that list. I didn't even notice it. I found that article in the airport and texted Jay about it bc I couldn't post from the airport.

"I can understand someone from Iowa promoting corn and soy, but we are not feeding the world, we are feeding animals and soft drink companies." - Jim Goodman

[ Parent ]
Earl Butz (4.00 / 3)
Sometimes I have thought that a corporately owned America premeditatedly uses Big Ag as a tool to force farmers off the land, to increase the supply of fodder for low wage, dead end jobs. I also have thought perhaps I was just being tinfoil-hattish. I didn't know Earl Butz actually put the thought into words. That policy has been around for a long time.

Family farms. (4.00 / 4)
The great majority, if not 100%, of Jim Perdue's contract chicken growers are family farms. The "farmers" are little more than indentured servants, but at least the operations are family owned.

1000 dairy farms were lost in New York State last year. 1000 dairy farms in one state in one year. That strikes me as a horrendous statistic.

"Family farm" has a romantic "sturdy yeoman" ring to it, but while many farmers like their way of life, being a family farmer in an industrial ag system is not an easy thing. Speaking of India, the biggest ag news from there for several recent years running has been the high rate of farmer suicides. And suicide is the leading cause of death among American farmers.

The student (4.00 / 2)
Did she say Pollan's idea are "narrow and elitist"?

Plowing through the Deconstructing Dinner podcasts has given me the overpowering feeling that the sustainable good food movement is the polar opposite of either narrow or elitist. It has global importance, and the goal is to benefit as many people as possible.

Of course it is... (4.00 / 2)
Plowing through the Deconstructing Dinner podcasts has given me the overpowering feeling that the sustainable good food movement is the polar opposite of either narrow or elitist.

But our goals are diametrically opposed to Big Ag's (the companies, not the farmers obviously)... and they're the ones with the considerable bully pulpit that trillions of dollars combined will provide.  Like any outfit of that type, they'll always have tons of hacks and shills on hand to do their bidding, even at their own peril.

Up is down, Cheetos are just as good as carrots, we have always been at war with biodiversity, etc etc...

[ Parent ]
15 Minutes of Fame Fail... (4.00 / 2)

Isn't Pollan also a professeor now? (4.00 / 4)

Now sure how much time he's actually spent in the classroom but I expect that if he has spent any time there he's met the smarty pants young student many a time. When I went back to University after age 30 I swear there was at least one guy/gal with that smug smile, usually somewhere around the 20 year mark who had a thing about trying to prove the professor was wrong, in every class. For me it was always quite comical how the profs dealt with those types. Just kinda bowled over them, usually always very polite with facts and words.

As for words getting co-opted as annoying as that is it's a major step in getting something accepted. If big ag is now using the terms it means that they see the basic ideas behind either a worthy endeveavors or enough of a threat to start trying to add to their own definition. What it means is that  the talk can change not from, we should be doing this sustainably to okay now we both accept that we should be doing this let's start debating what that actually means.  

I worked witin a national students originization for 5 years and pushed many reforms based on 'sustainablity'. Long story short we got a lot and I mean a lot of push back both polite and underhanded against what we were doing. (At one point they ever tried to mess in our school election to get us ousted they considered us such pains against the 'status' crow.  The powers that be literally laughed at us and said it was a crock, 'sustainability' was a fad and not something that this org should ever care about.  It was clear though that we were making progress when the people that held the power strings got up one meeting and started using the same language we were using and the frame of debate moved. Very soon after that more students from across the country started to get on board and after the group that I was in left to move on, others moved in and started building on the basic things that we got implemented.  Anyhow I just checked their website and front and center is a link to "Students for Sustainability' a org that works with the Sierra Youth Foundation and the David Susuki Foundation.  Wow.

I feel a little fuzzy and warm inside that I was so instrumental in the initial fight to even get the idea into that org and now it's right on the front. I bet the current crop of students working on it have no idea the fight  and BS that it took to get it there.   Take that Jxxxx Cxxxxx and MXXXXX XXXXXX!  Gonna come back and still tell me I'm an ignorant, stupid and politically inept little girl now?  LOL.  

ha 'crow' =quo (4.00 / 2)
but I think that crow works as well.  **Squawk squawk, the same, the same, squawk, squawk***

[ Parent ]
Lol, "status crow"! (4.00 / 3)
That does work in a way...


[ Parent ]
I thought you were just being clever! (4.00 / 1)

Vote for yourself at!

[ Parent ]
Suzuki (4.00 / 3)
Reports and analysts from the David Suzuki Foundation are featured by Deconstructing Dinner. They have done great work on the British Columbia salmon farming industry, among other topics. I hadn't heard of the Foundation or Suzuki before, shame on me.

Great point about being a professor. I hadn't thought of that.

[ Parent ]
thanks for the awesome write up Jill (4.00 / 4)
just wanted to compliment your piece on Pollan. i feel sorry in a way for these poor farmers who have been brainwashed all their lives from Farm Bureau and Monsanto, John Deere about how agribusiness interests and farmers are on the same side and the evil ones are "enviros," "animal Activists" and now Michael Pollan. i think esp since NAIS, more and more farmers are seeing Farm Bureau for what it is. the history of Farm Bureau is fascinating too--their origins are in the fact that the Chamber of Commerce in the 1910s were terrified of the populist farmers movts. these guys were correctly going after the Minneapolis grain elevators (controlled by the likes of Cargill...), the Wall Street bankers, the railroads trusts. so you had the socialist Non Partisan League take over the North Dakota legislature in 1915. scared the shit out of Chamber rof Commerce. so farm bureau formed in Chicago (!) in 1919 as a way to coopt the farmers from their radical ways of thinking.

also, the reason why govt policy and corporations DONT want more farmers is that we need labor. corporations need cheap labor. so read through the Gates stuff or Green Rev's all about moving people off the land so they can be employed in "productive" industrial endeavors. there's also that bias that "progress" always means moving off the farm to the city and having a nice desk job or factory job instead of being a "peasant."

one of our members was awarded a young farmer of the year in Wisconsin. they run a CSA. and they find hilarious all the zombie talking points they hear from their neighbors, who can't believe they can make a good profit growing vegetables/fruits using broken old tractor equipment, no chemicals and without any debt too! being a "farmer" to them means having the $300000 John Deere tractor, using the $$$$ Monsanto GM seeds and being a slave to your banker and owing thousands of dollars. the cycle of unbrainwashing takes a long time. be sympathetic to those farmers caught up in it.

I think that's a part of why people are encouraged to not farm (4.00 / 4)
there are also a lot of people who prefer not to farm too, for various reasons.

In addition to that though, if you don't have farms producing commodity crops in quantity, be they plant or animals, the food and fuels manufacturers won't have the cheap feedstocks to fuel their businesses.

There's a debate going on over at MeatingPlace, in Yvonne Viseer Traxton's blog post titled "Where have all the farmers gone?" about the shortage of people to replace the farmers who are retiring.

The points I've made in my comments on that article, is that it's not the small, direct to consumer, farms that are loosing farmers. Those are actually increasing. It's the commodity farms that are loosing people. The small farms can't supply the industries that depend on the commodity farms. We don't have the production capacity and we're not willing to work for the types of wages that the commodity farms will work for.

So, I think it's industry of both types that would like to see as many people in cities as possible.

To read the blog post, register with Meating Place, then click on the 'Industry Blogs' link in the left hand menu, and click on Yvonne's blog. It's an interesting convorsation that's going on there.

Normal people scare me. But not as much as I scare them.....

[ Parent ]
Fortunately, (4.00 / 1)
"sustainable" is a word which is harder to co-opt than "green."  If you take 10 seconds to think about "sustainable," it means that something can be sustained.  So 99% of the things that claim to be sustainable aren't - even most of the things that are better for the environment than their conventional alternative.  For instance, recycled plastic.  That's cited as "sustainable" a lot, but it really isn't.  After a few times, it can't be recycled, which means that the cycle can't be sustained.

Also, I think Michael Pollan has a real talent for keeping the discussion calm, and that's one of my favorite things about him and why he makes a great leader.  Hopefully the food discussion will never turn as stupid as the health care discussion, and if that's the case then I would thank Michael Pollan (as stupid as that hypothetical-laced sentence might be).  I was listening to a Science Friday podcast today and the author of that book "Just Food" (the subtitle is something about what locavores get "wrong") was debating Pollan and another guy.  And the author was looking for a fight and so was the host, but Pollan just stayed calm and kept getting the author to concede his points.  He basically just made the author look like a jackass by forcing him to agree with some convoluted caveat every time - but Pollan was still very respectful and intelligent.

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