The LA Times reports today that the chairman of the Harris Ranch Beef Co. has successfully pressured Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, one of California’s few universities with a strong agriculture program, into converting what was to be an upcoming lecture by Michael Pollan into a panel discussion with a meat science expert and a representative from a large organic grower. How? By threatening to withdraw a $150K pledge for an on-campus meat-packing plant. The chairman’s threat letter to Cal Poly’s president also apparently criticized a professor who called Harris Ranch “unsustainable”.
Harris Ranch itself is more than usually well known to Californians. It’s a huge holding area for thousands upon thousands of cattle as they’re fattened for market. It’s an hour or so south of San Jose, a feedlot acres long, set right along the east side of the I-5, California’s main interior north-south highway between LA and San Francisco. You can smell it coming a couple of miles before you get there, even with the windows and vents shut and the air conditioning on. And the cattle–herds and herds of them, closely packed. Quite a sight. All kinds, with very little room to wander around, and there’s no grazing to wander to. Elsewhere, on side highways through the hills, you see small herds, calves, occasionally lone cows or bulls meandering along the slopes, picking their way between boulders and foraging for grasses. Once they’re trucked to Harris Ranch, that’s over. It’s Cow City.
The manure piles, as you might imagine, are vast, and provide a valuable sideline business because the rest of the highway, all up the San Joaquin valley, is lined with cotton, orchards, and a variety of other crops, and the land itself is flat, dry, and chalky.
But does that make Harris Ranch Beef Co. sustainable? Probably not. Does Harris Ranch’s size make it evil or exploitative? Also probably not, or not automatically. It just makes it big. Really big–and maybe too big to run without depleting or damaging the local environment. Unless, of course, you have a good resource for researching better ways to farm.
But threatening to withdraw a big-ticket donation just because Michael Pollan gives a talk at the university might not be the best way to convince the world of Harris Ranch Beef Co.’s intentions toward the public or of its ethical business practices. More importantly, it might not be the best way to present the beef industry to students at the Ag school.
It is probably too much to ask a big business like Harris Ranch Beef Co. to act intelligently rather than in panic when it comes to criticism over its sustainability. But I wonder what would have happened if the chairman had looked at the university’s sustainability research as an opportunity rather than a threat.
Ironically, big agribusinesses like Harris Ranch probably need the kind of fresh thinking and research on sustainable practices that Cal Poly-SLO and other agriculture schools are starting to produce. The next 20 years are going to see a lot of changes in food production because a lot of resources are either already being depleted or getting more expensive faster than anyone could have predicted 10 years ago. Even the next 5 years are up for grabs. These changes are already hard to miss.
All the big agro and food processing businesses that decry Pollan’s food journalism today are going to be changing something about how they do business. They’ll have to, whether or not he (and other credible researchers) gets to talk freely about the problems of the status quo at the Ag schools they support. The question is whether the Ag schools will have thought about the problems he raises and be prepared with some solutions when agribusiness finally realizes it needs a new approach.
Filed under: Food Politics | Tagged: academic freedom, agribusiness, agriculture research, agriculture schools, beef industry, Big Food, California, Food Politics, Michael Pollan, sustainability, sustainable food |