Mention Michael Pollan's name to a group of conventional ranchers or farmers and you'll hear no shortage of harsh opinions.

Pollan, a journalist and University of California-Berkeley professor, is the author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and other books and essays critical of modern production agriculture practices. He is particularly critical of the use of corn for animal feed, corn oil and sweeteners, and the use of these products in processed foods ranging from canned vegetables to chicken strips. He is a critic of "factory farming" and "industrialized" agriculture.

As such, he is a polarizing figure: a prophet to the local food movement, a wild-eyed radical to many who have their livelihoods invested in production agriculture.

It's understandable that some Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo ag alumni were enraged to learn that the ag school's Sustainable Agriculture Resource Consortium agreed to pay Pollan $20,000 for two speaking engagements -- a private fundraiser and an open event on campus. Harris Ranch Beef Co., a California specialty beef producer and a large financial benefactor of the school, was particularly irked. Pollan has called the ranch's feeding program "the epitome of unsustainability."

As a result of the outcry, instead of a solo speech Pollan's public appearance will be a panel discussion.

Many Washington wheat producers were equally miffed when Washington State University put Pollan's book on the freshman reading list and invited him to speak.

We understand the outrage, but we balk at attempts to keep Pollan from speaking at public universities. We think constructive engagement makes more sense.

Colleges and universities are places where ideas, good ones and bad ones, are supposed to be vetted. Debate between those who hold different points of view leads to better understanding and better ideas.

It's possible conventional producers and Pollan have more in common than they might think and have more to learn from one another than they might think.

The Farm Bureau has been saying for years that Americans don't really know where their food comes from. Pollan agrees. Pollan wants policies that benefit family farms. Everyone in agriculture can appreciate that.

To be sure, there are differences. Pollan's definition of what constitutes a family farm is extremely narrow, as is, we think, his definition of sustainability.

Conventional producers must recognize that for a small but growing number of people the selection of one type of food over another is an expression of personal values and identity. It would be folly not to consider the opportunity such zealous buyers represent.

There is room in the market for producers of many stripes. The farmer who grows organic crops for the local market and the Palouse wheat farmer who grows for the international trade are each meeting a consumer demand. Only those who serve a demand can be viable, and anyone who finds a way to remain viable in today's economy should be saluted, not scorned.

Consumers are best served by having viable choices. Those choices would be limited if one faction is successful in enforcing its orthodoxy.


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