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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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And I think this is really where the university comes in. I think it is the university's job to be the kind of antenna of the industry. The antenna, you know, looking at what's next, testing new models. Figuring out, you know, how productive could you be putting cows back on grass? How well could local food systems -- foodsheds -- feed a given area? What happens to agriculture at $350 a barrel oil? And it's a reason we all need to support the university, as a place where those questions -- scary as they may be, threatening as they may seem, get tried out. Where we do our test tube experiments.

But as an organizing principle, think about that idea of ... just to take you back to your grandparents' age. Pre-war farming: For every calorie of fossil fuel energy we put into the system -- the farm system on the farm -- we got back two calories of food energy. Calories are just measurements of food energy; they could be anything -- could be a Twinkie, could be oil. The modern industrial food system, which I completely acknowledge its achievements in terms of making food really, really cheap ... that is quite an achievement, but you have to look at cost, also. As in everything in life, it's a trade-off. That modern food system, it takes ten calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of fast food, or processed food.

So that again ... can we count on that? I don't think we can.


I don't think it's about "Do we want?" This isn't about taste. This isn't about "I like this kind of food and I like that kind of food." This is about the fact that we're entering a kind of scary time characterized by less fossil fuel, less water, climate change -- which is an enormous threat to agriculture. It introduces a whole new level of uncertainty. There are already wine makers in the Napa Valley ... they're already saying it's changing their economy, and they have to adapt and figure out new varieties.

So that change is coming whether we want it or not. And the challenge is, do you kind of go into it willing to be experimental, or do you fight?

Now, let's take the oil example with the oil industry. Detroit did a fantastic job of defending itself against change. And they have the Congress of the United States, and all the representatives fighting back all the forces that said, "You know, you really need better gas mileage. This is a mistake." And they won. But they lost by winning.

And we have to make sure agriculture -- big agriculture, little agriculture, all different types of agriculture -- doesn't find itself in that boat.


Moderator: Myra ... what do you see as the challenges you're going to face, and how do you think we might be addressing those?

MG: On the macro scale, of course, knowing that our fossil fuel resources are limited and are going to get more expensive, going to get more limited. We're going to get huge water problems in the state. Climate change terrifies me, especially as an organic farmer, because we don't have these silver bullets to deal with pests. And everyone talks about climate change making pests a much bigger problem.

I also think when you're a business owner, you also have to look at financial sustainability. And have to look at making an ethical profit, so you can afford to pay your workers a living wage, and get them to return to the farmers that they stay in business. And I think especially in California, what's happening now is that retail has consolidated so much that the last thing I heard was five major retailers own eighty percent of the supermarket space, and there's so many different farmers, and we have no power in these negotiations. There's an auction system for a lot of this business, and you're seeing our margins get really squeezed, and so I think our agenda for financial survival is something that we need to balance with these long term threats. And it would be great, like you were saying, in universities like this, where you're not trying every day to make ends meet and make your payroll and make your company happy, to have some help with some of those big issues that we'll be facing in the future.

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