by Marion Nestle
Oct 19 2009

Today’s scandal: industrial agriculture vs. Michael Pollan

In my previous post, I mentioned that a Cal Poly donor had written the university arguing that Michael Pollan should not be permitted to speak to students unopposed.  The donor, Mr. David Wood of Harris Ranch Beef Company, wrote Dr. Warren Baker, President of Cal Poly, threatening to withdraw his promised $500,000 contribution if the invitation to Mr. Pollan was not withdrawn.

I now have copies of the actual letters.  They are well worth reading by anyone concerned about the relationship of industrial agriculture to its impact on soil and water, climate change, rural sustainability, air quality, animal welfare, worker safety, antibiotic resistance, and human health, as well as by the influence of Big Agriculture on public policy.

Here is the letter from Mr. Wood to Dr. Baker. And here are Dr. Baker’s response to that letter and Mr. Wood’s response to Dr. Baker’s response.

My favorite quotation from Mr. Wood’s response is this:

For too long now, those intimately involved in production of agriculture have silently allowed others (academics and activists) to shape their future. Not any longer! The views of elitists’ [sic] like Michael Pollan can no longer go unchallenged. Agriculture cannot allow the Pollans of the world to shape societal expectations (and ultimately policy makers’ decisions) regarding the production practices that can or cannot be employed by those whose livelihood depends on the continued development and adoption of modern agriculture practices.

I will let this comment speak for itself.

Note: thanks to all the people, especially Matt, who offered help with downsizing the letter file.

  • If you cannot upload to your servers, perhaps Google Docs will work instead?

  • Emily

    I’m just finishing Joel Salatin’s book “Everything I Want To Do Is Illegal.” Salatin is the grass farmer in Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

    Salatin thinks that the government should not fund agricultural research at all becase it’s all skewed towards giants farms and hurts his small farming business.

    So while Mr. Wood thinks Pollan will hurt his business, Mr. Salatin thinks Mr. Wood hurts his.

  • Anthro

    It seems clear from Mr. Wood’s response to Mr. Baker that he is far more ideologically motivated than Mr. Pollan.

    The proper thing for Mr. Baker to have done would have been to tell Mr. Wood that the university will not be held hostage for donations and that he could keep his money.

    Health care, banking, agriculture–all being held hostage by lobbyists. Voting doesn’t matter either unless we can achieve campaign finance reform.

    Also, Mr. Wood cites a bunch of quotes from Pollan which he apparently considers as evidence of something, but he doesn’t say what that is, nor does he directly rebut any of them. In total, a strange, poorly-written diatribe reminiscent of a temper tantrum.

  • The quotes used by Mr Wood are quite odd – they are only illustrative of the experiences Mr. Pollan has had, and how they have shaped his opinions. I don’t understand how a quote such as:

    “To me, going on feed lots,chicken and hog operations, it has changed the way I eat. You can’t go through those places without being changed. You lose your appetite for certain kinds of food.”

    What exactly is Mr. Wood trying to prove by sharing such quotes? He doesn’t refute the experience or the result. If anything, he is suggesting something much more sinister; CAFO’s should restrict any and all inspections.

    Thank you for sharing these letters. As always, this blog brings clarity to some of the difficult-to-decipher food-centric current events.

  • Seems a bit disingenuous of you to attack a letter while claiming it’s too big a file to upload. It’s the simplest thing to store it on your website and provide a link.

    Harris Ranch, ironically, is a “designer label” product, identifed by name on menus at the likes of The Slanted Door.

  • mosprott

    Send the file to me; I can make it smaller for you.

    And keep up the good work!

  • Leha

    If you copy the text and paste it into a plain text file you can then zip it and lose a lot of “weight.” If you can’t copy the text, then it is a scan, and that would explain why it’s so huge. The only thing to do in that case would be to try OCR (OminPage, or somesuch).

  • Wow. That guy is SCARED.

    That should motivate people to keep doing what they’re doing for the cause of sustainable and ethical farming and ranching. For one man’s work to have caused such an uproar, well, it just warms my heart.

    I love that he calls people who want to eat and farm as nature intended, ELITIST. Come on.

  • LEWagner

    Does this quotation from Mr. Wood’s letter seem ironic to anyone else?

    “This whole mess is having a profound impact not just on Cal Poly, but rather, on Ag schools across this great nation. We believe this is a wakeup call to those in academia. We hope and pray that you are listening!”

    Thanks to you, Ms. Nestle, and thanks to Michael Pollan, we are in the midst of one BIG wake up call!

  • James

    I’ve been to Harris Ranch and it’s a scary place. It’s right next to a very small town called Coalinga. Harris Ranch probably occupies more space than the rest of the town, and of course it makes many times more money than the rest of the town put together, but they do precious little to help the pretty poor inhabitants of the town. They aren’t a great bunch of folks to begin with.

    I have to say, though, I do like the thought of Pollan speaking and then being part of a panel with some representatives of industrial agriculture. There’s an interesting article here ( in which a farmer responds to Pollan, and though Pollan definitely informs my view of things I thought this guy made some good points. I’d like to hear Pollan respond to some of those critiques, since I just know so little about industrial agriculture.

  • EBMalone

    Can anyone tell me the details of Marion’s public appearance today, Oct. 20, in Vicenza, Italy? I live here and would like to attend.

  • Hi Marion,
    I may be naive but I am unclear why you are implying we should dismiss David Wood’s request for a more inclusive discussion of the issues. I am a strong proponent of sustainable, local food production. Your writing, along with Michael Pollan’s and Jeffrey Masson’s have profoundly changed my life and my relationship with food. But I also know that we will not prevail in promoting a better approach to food and ag if the argument appears one-sided or like some bit of coastal elitism. David Woods arguments for CAFOs and NPK enhance farming will eventually fall flat but his POV deserves a forum and hopefully in providing one, we can get him closer to his “road to damascus” moment.
    If you have a moment, I am curious to hear your thoughts.



  • Cindy

    Have you heard about the beef industry’s response to the Baltimore, MD, school district instituting Meatless Mondays? You can imagine.

  • Cindy

    Meet the next generation of beef propagandists:

  • The article link posted by James above. And below again, paints what I imagine is a more comprehensive picture of the problems facing our food production.

    It seems reasonable that Pollen should face a panel for an open discussion.

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  • pdquick

    How did he graduate from college with such a poor command of English grammar?

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  • jill

    As the world population continues to increase and the current economic crisis that has affected the entire world, how could we possibly sustain a Michael Pollan “diet”. That alone is an unsustainable trend.