Processing Magazine

Pollan''s food book sparks intense dairy debate

September 24, 2009
One best-selling book advocating fresh, local foods is shaking up America''s Dairyland, according to the Associated Press. Students across University of Wisconsin-Madison''s campus, organic grocers, scientists, and dairy farmers large and small have jumped into the debate on how food is produced and eaten. The discussions started last month when the university began giving Michael Pollan''s book, "In Defense of Food," free to all incoming freshmen and school officials urged professors to use it in class. The book urges readers to "eat food, not too much, mostly plants" and criticizes food companies and scientists for replacing traditional foods with unhealthier, highly processed substitutes and confusing consumers with health claims. Pollan''s work has been used on college campuses from the University of California-Berkeley, where he is a journalism professor, to Columbia University in New York City for courses ranging from science journalism to environmental politics. But the program at UW-Madison is unique because the book and related topics are being discussed everywhere from French and political science courses to an exhibit on the history of food. And Pollan is to speak at the 17,000-seat Kohl Center Thursday in the liberal college town. Earlier this year the book won the James Beard Foundation Award for best food writing. But not everyone is so excited about the book. Bill Bruins, who has a dairy farm near Waupun and is president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, is working with the university to have farmers go into classrooms to present their points of view. UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin started the "Go Big Read" program, in which the campus is asked to read the same book, and hopes it becomes a tradition. She was involved with a similar project for several years as provost at Cornell University. She said she picked "In Defense of Food" because it covered several topical national issues. And as a bonus, Pollan was already planning to visit campus. After facing criticism for picking Pollan, Martin has spoken to agricultural groups, hosted farmers at her university residence and visited a Madison-based agricultural company. At every turn, she contends the university is not endorsing Pollan''s views and noted that many events will offer competing opinions. Pollan''s lecture is in an arena normally reserved for presidential candidates and rock stars. Hundreds of farmers wearing green will be there too, ready to answer questions about food production and tell their side of the story.