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‘Defense of Food’ book stirs debate in Dairyland

One best-selling book advocating fresh, local foods is shaking up America's Dairyland.  Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food" has excited many students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but there are others who think his book is a "direct attack" on farming.
/ Source: The Associated Press

One best-selling book advocating fresh, local foods is shaking up America's Dairyland.

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.

"I have not seen the students this excited about something in years," Irwin Goodman, a horticulture professor who is vice dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences said of the buzz on campus about Pollan's field-to-table philosophies.

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.

Kelsey Ward, an 18-year-old freshman from Naperville, Ill., said she's talked about the book in chemistry and diversity classes, and with her roommate, a food science major.

"It's really cool how they've connected everyone on campus through this project," she said. The book, which earlier this year won the James Beard Foundation Award for best food writing, has prompted her to eat more salads and fewer processed foods.

But not everyone is so excited.

Bill Bruins, who has a dairy farm near Waupun and is president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, called the book "a direct attack on the way we farm today." His group is working with the university to have farmers go into classrooms to present their points of view.

"Pollan has narrow and elitist ideas about how you should eat and how farmers should (or shouldn't) feed a hungry and growing world," Bruins wrote on the farm bureau's Web site.

Another critic, John Lucey, is a UW-Madison professor and food scientist. Pollan blames food scientists for replacing food with "nutrients," and Lucey wrote on a university Web site that scientists have helped preserve foods longer, improved food safety and cut meal preparation time for busy parents.

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.

"This is our core business at the university — taking something that interests a significant number of people and let people talk about it from every conceivable point of view," Martin said. "I love this give and take. That's what a university is about."

Pollan's Thursday 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, said Laura Daniels, a dairy farmer in Cobb, Wis., who is organizing the group.

"To imagine the Kohl Center filled not only with faculty and students but with farmers and foodies from all over the state and beyond is extraordinarily exciting," said Sara Guyer, director of the Center for the Humanities and professor of English who was on the selection committee for the book.

Miriam Grunes, executive director of the Madison-based Research, Education, Action and Policy on Food Group, said the book is helping "to showcase what small, sustainable farm products look like."

"It's a really important topic for young people to be thinking about as they become consumers and decision makers for the future, to be aware of the way food does come to our table," she said. "It's great the light is being shined on those issues. Too many people are disconnected from them."