Michael Pollan's WSU Visit Debrief

It worked out for me to attend the Michael Pollan event at Washington State University last night. It was well attended with a couple thousand people in the stands of WSU's basketball arena. He acknowledged the controversy of the visit at the beginning of his remarks but didn't go into detail. In a moment of diminished inhibitions I actually emailed him last week to see if I could interview him over the phone and get his perspective on the hubbub. His assistant was very kind in the way she told me that he was too busy.

I hate to say it but his presentation was kind of boring, at least for me. I was familiar with most of the material he covered. The advantage of an in-person presentation, just like a live music concert, is that you get something more raw and unfiltered, more improvised and personal. It felt like less of a live performance and more like a synopsis of his writings on food. Oh well.

The crowd was subdued for most of the talk with occasional applause for certain parts of his presentation. The largest applause related to his comments about private corporations having a stranglehold on the research going on at institutions like WSU. I guess that comment hit close to home.

The most fascinating part of the evening for me was that on the way out there were students lined up handing out brochures from the National Cattleman's Beef Association. I confirmed today that it was the Washington State Beef Board that provided the brochures and organized the distribution. I did a little poking around and discovered that both the national and the Washington organization are funded by a $1 per head of cattle sold fee ($79 million in 2007). This "checkoff" program is overseen by the USDA. Assuming those costs are passed on to the consumer, not only are we buying industrial beef, we are paying for the industrial beef interests to market that beef to us and tell us it's not as bad as Michael Pollan would have you think. I have a call into the state board and the office explained that they were traveling back from Pullman today. If I hear back from them I'll let you know what their perspective is on the event.