Something of a rock-star atmosphere filled the University of Wisconsin's Kohl Center on Thursday night as a crowd of nearly 8,000 listened to author Michael Pollan speak about his book, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto.” The book was chosen for a new universal reading program at the university called "Go Big Read," in which freshman and other students are given the book and the topics are worked into class curriculum across the university from the medical school to the humanities department.
The widen-ranging crowd consisted of University of Wisconsin students and staff, but also interested Madison community members. A group of about 200 farmers, agricultural professionals as well as university agricultural students and faculty showed up to the lecture wearing green t-shirts printed with the slogan, “In Defense of Farming: Eat Food. Be Healthy. Thank Farmers.”
While not staged as a protest, the agriculture representatives wanted their presence to make a statement against Pollan’s criticisms of modern farming practices and technologies, which are illustrated in his books and his participation in other avenues such as the movie Food Inc. More importantly, the agricultural representatives took the opportunity to reach out to consumers and tell agriculture’s story.
Once inside, Pollan himself even acknowledged the group in his speech, saying that the slogan on their t-shirts could easily be used as the theme for the evening. He said he believes farmers hold the key to solving our current health, environmental and energy crises, but there will be many voices in those conversations. Among those at the top of his list are farmers providing organic, natural and locally grown products.
Much of Pollan’s lecture focused on what he calls “The American Paradox” – a public that is health conscious, but overall extremely unhealthy.He did not, however, address American's continuously rising life span, nor did he address the impact of an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.
He encouraged audience members to cut highly processed foods out of their diets, and demand foods containing fewer ingredients. "Don't eat anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize," he said. Adding later, "I should probably make that don't eat anything you see advertised on TV."
Pollan also touched on the idea that it’s not just what people eat, it’s how they eat it; meaning they should start making more meals from scratch at home. "People can find the time," he said. He did not address any potential higher costs associated with fresh, natural or organic foods. .
The book selection did generated tremendous controversy with facility and alumni of a land-grant university. Consequently it appeared that Pollan downplayed his anti-industrial agriculture message, although he did talk about corn production, the corn lobby and high-fructose corn syrup and specifically cited Iowa and Illinois as culprits in today's food production. He talked about "revolutionizing agriculture" and "getting people off the western diet."
He told the group that food "is this generation's issue; they can make a difference."