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Despite Censorship By Beef Magnate, Michael Pollan Spreads Message About the Real Price of Cheap Food

Pollan took on Big Ag and cheap food in a panel discussion, after the protests of a meat industry chairman led to his speech at a University being canceled.

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The word sustainability, unless you qualify it, means nothing because it's anything you could keep going. So you have to put some words in front of it. It's really interesting. There's a wonderful article by Liz Sloan in the last issue of Food Technology. She cited nine studies where they had actually gone up to people and said, "Do you use 'sustainability' or 'green' in making purchasing decisions?"

Fifty-four to 82 percent of them said yes, we do. They then asked, "What does it mean? What does the word 'sustainability' mean?" Sixty percent of them said, "Huh. I really don't know." And so they said in many of these studies, "Well, what do you think it means?" Of all the answers they were given, the number one answer was "natural." Second was "organic." Third was "locally grown." Fourth was "humanely treated." And then it got into small carbon footprint and so on.

So as those of us in universities begin to tackle sustainability, we say there is a "food supply sustainability;" there is an "agriculture sustainability;" And I like commissions like the Pew commission when they said: "What does sustainability mean to animal agriculture?" And the Pew Commission said: "The management of animal agriculture so that it can be maintained indefinitely."

Now that doesn't mean forever. And so our task, as people who are involved in agriculture is: We know things are going to change. We know how we're doing at the moment. We want to be able to do the things that are necessary to make sure that we are able to feed 9.1 billion people in the year 2050.

So to us, agricultural sustainability is food security: Can we continue to do this the best we can, with all the science and technology we can put into the action, can we continue to feed the world's hungry people?


Moderator: What do you believe are the biggest challenges facing the industry? How do we change, or move toward that ideal, that place that you might see out there that's sustainable?

MP: Yeah, getting from here to there is a tremendous challenge, and I'm sympathetic to any producer who operates under a system that may or may not be working well for them, but it's very hard to picture how to do it differently. One of the key challenges -- just continuing with this oil issue - T. Boone Pickens says we're going to have $350 a barrel oil within 10 years. We all saw what that did to the food system in 2008. It threw everybody's input system through the roof. And transportation costs. You had big growers out here, when the price of broccoli went from three dollars per box to ten dollars per box to get it to New York City ... buying agricultural land on the east coast to shorten the food supply.

So I think one of the metrics that's worth thinking about is, to what extent you can squeeze fossil fuel out of your business model, and replace it with the only source of sustainable energy we really have which is to say solar energy. And the more sun in a system - the more energy that's derived from sun and less from oil, you're moving in the right direction. So I think that's very important.

But it's also very important for people to understand that I'm not an agronomist. I'm not a scientist. I teach writing; I teach journalism. And everything I have learned, I have learned by talking to producers and to academics. This is where my information comes from. And I am out looking for models, you know? Good, bad, medium.

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