A crowd of almost 8,000 packed the University of Wisconsin’s Kohl Center on Thursday evening to listen to author Michael Pollan speak about his book, “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” which was chosen for the university’s common book reading program, Go Big Read. While much of the crowd consisted of UW students, staff and interested Madison community members, a group of about 200 Wisconsin farmers, ag supporters, and UW ag students and faculty also 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 group felt their presence at the lecture was necessary to make a statement against Pollan’s criticisms of modern farming practices and technologies.  More importantly, it also created an opportunity to reach out to consumers and tell agriculture’s story.  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 then admitted that he believes farmers hold the key to solving our current health, environmental, and energy crises, but there will be many voices in those conversations.

Much of Pollan’s lecture focused on what he calls “The American Paradox” – a public that is so health conscious, but overall extremely unhealthy. He encouraged audience members to cut highly-processed foods out of their diets, and demand foods containing fewer ingredients.  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 instead of buying their kids a fast food meal on-the-go.

Pollan had just enough time at the end of his speech to touch on his views of modern agriculture, stating that “Our personal health and the health of our farms are linked – it is the processors that stand in the middle.” He made the point that maximizing diets full of animal and plant foods that have been minimally processed will lead to more diversification on farms, and higher profits for the farmers.

Comments from Annie McCullough, food360 advertising sales representative

Pollan basically reiterated the main idea of his book: eat less, not too much, mostly plants – although he did say that everything in moderation is still ok.  He really did not say anything that any of us could disagree with – which I think may have confused the other attendees on why the farmers are upset with Pollan.  He pretty much ran out of time to discuss his views on modern farming, and he conveniently avoided the topics of on-farm usage of approved technologies – not sure if he did that on his own to avoid confrontation with the ag crowd, or if he was instructed to do so by the organizers.  The chancellor has caught a lot of flack for choosing Pollan’s book for the campus reading program, and a lot of the farm groups and alumni have been angry because this book should not be representative of the views of a land-grant university. Chancellor Martin’s introduction to the speech last night was very pro-ag, stating the impact Wisconsin agriculture has on the state’s economy and talking about the many ag industries in which Wisconsin leads production.  So at least that started the evening out on a good note, and hopefully some of the audience members realized the importance of ag in the state.

The group of ag supporters was not able to sit together, but there were pockets spread out throughout the crowd.  The t-shirts definitely sparked a lot of interest and conversation amongst the attendees, and gave a lot of us the chance to tell our story about our farms and the food we produce.