I am dumbfounded why the Cal Poly faculty and administration selected Gary Smith as the representative voice of agribusiness interests for the panel discussion with Michael Pollan at the university. Having attended the event and spoken with Smith, I have some deep concerns.
Clearly there was impetus to appease a distraught Harris Ranch Beef so the school would not lose a half million-dollar grant the company promised. Yet why, of all people, plenty of them within driving distance who have real connections to farming and/or ranching, who do not merely own a “natural” meat company but perhaps run one, was Smith chosen to represent the concerns of industrial agriculture? The faculty at Cal Poly went out of their way to find him: Can anyone explain why they bothered?
Smith glorified microwave dinners, yet called for home economics to have a larger role in secondary school. This struck me as peculiar, since he apparently prefers cup-of-noodles over homemade chicken soup—an irony when he himself appeared to exemplify the link between obesity and lack of home cooking. Moreover, in his typical third-person narrative, he declared that “we opened our arms” to unconventional beef producers, while in the same breath noting that grass-fed beef accounts for less than one percent of the total market share.
His hyping cheap processed food was then coupled with the rather imperialist statement that “we need to teach people around the world how to grow their own food.” Such a statement coming from a man who admittedly has never grown his own food, I consider a blatant insult to millions of farmers worldwide.
“Let’s not have a meatless Monday, let’s have a no-electricity Tuesday!” he implored. Let’s be honest: Do those words hold merit, much less logic? There wouldn’t even be a microwave dinner of meat stew, with its usual inventory of preservatives and artificial colors, without electricity. Indeed, addressing climate change requires much more than refraining from McDonald’s meals. Putting matters into such simplistic terms is worse than irrational; it makes a laughing matter out of the greatest challenge of our times.
He declared, “I want to feed people.” Yet he followed that by stating, “Only 20 percent of the corn we raise is fed to animals.” That’s nearly a quarter of corn production gone to feed animals, notably cows, who are not even biologically meant to digest grain. One could easily interpret the use of ‘only’ as a boorish, if not arrogant, dismissal of the approximately 1 billion hungry and starving people across the world.
Following the event, I challenged Smith’s claim that America should impose its view of agriculture on communities across the world and was soon entangled in a very unproductive discussion. Our conversation ended with him exclaiming somewhat hysterically that “Pollan really just wants us to be hunters and gatherers!” He cited the last chapter of The Omnivore’s Dilemma as proof of this. I realized at that point I was not speaking to a logical man but a fanatic.
After trying to diminish Pollan to little more than a dreamy romantic, Smith yelled at me to “go ahead then!” and run a small grass-fed cattle operation. He simply ignored the many times I told him in fact I do, that I stand at the Baywood farmers market every Monday selling ground beef.
I walked outside the discussion dazed that I could not have a decent conversation with this professor from Colorado State, who’s esteemed by some Cal Poly faculty members for his lofty credentials. I ran into an old rancher I know and we began talking about the impossibility of processing meat on a small-scale basis (four meatpackers slaughter 88 percent of all U.S. cattle). He sighed and reminded me we just have to keep on carrying on.
This debate was organized to discuss sustainability, agriculture, and our collective future. To bring in someone as dogmatic, with such a frozen perspective as Gary Smith goes against the very essence of fostering debate. He seemed utterly disconnected with the changing times, and his selection as panelist was an embarrassment to the university. But it reaffirmed to the audience that the long outdated agricultural mentality he represents is on the way out.
I hope the Cal Poly administration and faculty will in the future refuse to accept bribes clothed as grants and will uphold the critical, forward-thinking kind of debate that defines what universities are here to provide.
Sonja Swift grew up on Bear Creek Ranch in Los Osos and returned last spring to help guide the family farm/ranch into a new chapter. She is a freelance writer, an organic farmer, and is keen on practicing rotational grazing to heal the pasturelands of her family ranch. Send comments via the editor at email@example.com.