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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.

Award-winning food journalist Michael Pollan was invited to speak on October 15 at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo but after pressure from a university donor who is chairman of the Harris Ranch Beef Co., the university changed his speech to a panel discussion.

Pollan, whose works include The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto is the Knight Professor of Environmental Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. He's also no stranger to attacks from Big Ag.

Pollan used the forum to continue to challenge people to think about the ways in which we are growing food in our current fossil-fuel dependent system of agriculture. "We're producing ourselves into a hole," he warned the audience.

Joining him on the panel was Gary Smith, the Monford Endowed Chair of meat science at the University of Colorado and Myra Goodman, the co-founder of Earthbound Farm.

What follows is a transcript of the discussion, edited by the AlterNet staff for length and clarity.

Moderator: What is sustainability?

Michael Pollan: I would be remiss if I didn't address a little bit the circumstances surrounding this event, which I don't think we can let pass in silence. But one of the reasons we're doing the panel and not a conventional speech is that there was a real challenge to the university posed by the government, and what is potentially a real threat to academic freedom. And as much as agriculture is what we want to talk about today, academic freedom under girds the ability to have the kind of conversation about agriculture we want to have.

Let me tie this back to sustainability. One of the things we understand from the science of ecology is that the best way to achieve resilience, in any system, is by diversity: biodiversity and intellectual diversity. And that having a diversity of views on this campus -- you know, because universities are the place where these conversations should take place, without any kind of bullying, without any kind of threats. It's critical to trying to figure out how to deal with the challenges that we have.

You could have a monoculture of a university -- one that only tolerated one kind of thinking - and when the world changes, as it inevitably does, you would find yourself in serious trouble. But when you have a lot of different ideas, and they're all nurtured, and they're all brought into contact with one another as we hope to do today, that is where you get the resources to withstand shocks to the system. And god knows those shocks are coming.

Let me just talk about sustainability and the agricultural format, because I really do believe that it's connected. You know, sustainability is a complex concept in one way, but it's also very simple: A sustainable system is one that can go on indefinitely, without destroying the conditions on which it depends -- or without depending on conditions it can't depend on.

So take for example fossil fuels: a system that is highly dependent on cheap oil may not be a sustainable system when oil prices go up. A system that depends on large quantities of free or cheap water has a problem when those situations change.

So sustainability is really -- it's an ideal. There are sustainable systems. A forest. A prairie. I mean, these are sustainable systems; they can go on year after year. They don't need inputs. They don't destroy the conditions on which they depend. But as soon as we get involved and start changing things to feed ourselves, we get into more complicated relationships. So it's a matter of degree, I would say.

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