Thursday, May 21, 2009

WSU decision brings heightened attention to Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma

In a revealing irony, from which cowardly university officials everywhere may have something to learn, the decision by Washington State University (WSU) officials to cancel Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma as the common reading assignment for freshman orientation next year is raising the book to new heights of notoriety and importance in that university community.

Reports today in the Spokesman-Review and the Chronicle of Higher Education (pay site) make a plausible case that pressure from Washington agribusiness interests may have been behind the cancellation. One faculty colleague, who asked not to be named in connection with this controversy, told U.S. Food Policy that WSU has its own Pacific Northwest character that distinguishes it from traditional agricultural universities in other regions.
That said, WSU Regents include politically powerful farmers and ranchers such as former Regent Peter Goldmark who ran for U.S. Congress in 2006 and is currently Washington State Commissioner of Public Lands. With extreme budget pressures, I understand how this could happen, but I don't like it.
I imagine this foolishness will triple the number of incoming students at WSU who read the book.

In any case, it was never going to be possible to suppress engagement of these issues at Washington State. A different faculty member, economist Trenton Smith, just this semester shared a provocative and ambitious essay (.pdf) about market power and information economics in industrial food production. An excerpt:
[O]ver the course of the last century, the U.S. has witnessed a dramatic shift away from traditional diets and toward a diet comprised primarily of processed brand-name foods with deleterious long-term health effects. This, in turn, has generated increasingly urgent calls for policy interventions aimed at improving the quality of the American diet. In this paper, we ask whether the current state of affairs represents a market failure, and—if so—what might be done about it.
In a way, Trent's essay is an economist's reflection on the issues raised by the tradition of food industry criticism exemplified by Pollan. A while ago, when I reviewed Omnivore's Dilemma for the American Journal of Agricultural Economics, I encouraged professional colleagues to read the book in exactly this spirit -- to wrestle with it, criticize it, and be inspired by it to work on novel economics questions that have been neglected by the mainstream literature.

Regarding today's controversy, Smith says, "I have discussed (and will continue to do so) Pollan's work in my undergraduate food / commodities marketing course, and it would have been great to expand the discussion to the rest of the student body." He adds, "I also find it ironic that this was all happening around the time I issued a working paper on the insidious influence big business has historically had on consumer access to information about food!"

Update: See also Tom Laskawy at Grist.


Ann Finan said...

One wonders if these same interests have had influence in the recent decision to cut the entire Community and Rural Sociology department at WSU. Many of the faculty involved in that department are engaged in research related to sustainable agriculture and food systems, some of the best in the country. The implications of both these decisions taken at our state's land grant university are dire for the development of local and sustainable food systems in the state of Washington (especially the eastern half of the state).

jhoncena said...
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Marler said...