I have always had a love/hate relationship with my Alma Mater. I was admitted conditionally (low GPA), but wound up receiving three Bachelor Degrees (Political Science, English and Economics), while at the same time being the first and only student elected to the Pullman City Council. In my spare time I found the time to sue the University and help prompt a no-confidence vote of the University President (those are very long stories). When I left in 1982 for law school few tears were shed in the wheat fields of the Palouse.  My guess is that when vetting me for FSIS Undersecretary, the Obama Administration must have made a few phone calls.

When I returned in 1996 as a Governor appointed Regent (I am sure it had nothing to do with the fact that I was the campaign finance chair for Gary Locke’s – now Commerce Secretary – successful bid for Governor) more than a few administrators wondered what they might be getting in a new boss. Frankly, like many who make a few dollars and inhabit boards, I thought I was quite mellow in the eight years I served (for the most part).

But I digress, this post is supposed to be about Michael Pollan and his visit to Pullman.

I bumped into Michael yesterday during his hour long Q and A with students. It was the first time that I had actually had the opportunity to meet “food jesus” although we had many acquaintances in common, including Eric Schlosser, Marion Nestle and Barbara Kowalczyk, among others. We had dinner together served by the hospitality program at the University – all organic and local as possible (salmon was from Alaska). It was then off to a nearly packed venue (about 4,000) for his talk (more on the substance later) that was very well received. This morning we shared a bus to the Pullman airport at 5:00 AM. We split in Seattle, he to do another speech, me to the seamy side of food – back into E. coli, et al.

Personally, I found Michael, bright, engaging, reasonable and with a child-like curiosity of things – like “what is a Big Mac” really made of?”

This morning’s media did focus a bit too much on the apparent controversy of the reading of "The Omnivore’s Dilemma" and Michael’s off again, on again visit. From the Student Newspaper:

Next, someone asked Pollan about the controversy over his book at WSU.

Pollan said he had simply heard the problem was budget related, yet he was quick to stress the need for freedom of inquiry, especially in public schools.

"Freedom and inquiry goes right to the heart of what a university is … ," he said. "This school has a powerful and illustrious agriculture college. And if we’re going to really change this food system and create a food system that contributes to the health of the population, it’s going to come out of places like this, (but only with) free and independent inquiry.”

The Lewiston Paper weighed in on that too:

"I wasn’t sure I was coming for a while there," Pollan said. "A whiff of a certain controversy reached me down in California."

In March, a committee of WSU professors selected his book as its third annual Common Reading selection for more than 3,000 incoming freshmen. Former WSU Provost Robert Bates started the program to create unity among first-year students and help them transition into the intellectual life of a university.

But WSU soon decided to drop distribution of the book. It cited a $54 million state budget cut and said it could not afford the $40,000 cost to bring Pollan to campus the following spring.

Others suspected politics, however. "The Omnivore’s Dilemma" is highly critical of large agribusiness, and one of WSU’s regents — Harold Cochran — owns a 5,500 acre farm near Walla Walla. One media report cited fellow Regent Francois Forgette as saying Cochran objected to the selection of Pollan’s book for the Common Reading program.

And English professor, Patricia Ericsson, The Chronicle of Higher Education an administrator cited political pressure as the reason the Common Reading program was canceled.

But then WSU alumnus William Marler stepped in with his checkbook. A nationally-known personal injury attorney in Seattle, Marler offered to pony up the money to bring Pollan to Pullman. WSU accepted and reinstated the Common Reading program.

Pollan’s book is right up Marler’s alley. A former president of the WSU Board of Regents, Marler now specializes in food safety issues.

Cochran declined a request for an interview from the Lewiston Tribune.

Pollan thanked Marler, who was sitting in the front row, for making his visit possible. "I don’t know that I would have been here if not for his intervention."

Pollan added that he welcomed the controversy. "It’s one of the reasons there are so many of you here," he said. "And it’s a very good thing for this country, because we are at the beginning of a national debate, I think, about the future of food and farming in America."

But, to the "meat" of his talk.  Like many thought leaders (and Michael is clearly one), listeners tend to hear things that they really like or really do not, and they hear them from their own perspective and experience. 

I tend to listen and approach issues as an economist – what are the incentives that make people react and then act?  If you "distill" Michael’s "Sun Food Agenda" to its essence, it is an economic argument about sustainability.  How is it possible to have a cheap, oil based agricultural system (corn, soy and fertilizer) when oil is becoming more expensive – financially, politically and environmentally?  And, how is it possible to sustain cheap, calorie rich food when it costs billions of dollars in chronic health care?

These are the "weighty" issues that we can face now by adjusting how we produce and consume food, or the consequences will be imposed upon us or our children when oil prices collapse the food market or health care cost are flattened by the "weight" of the illnesses in our populations.

I believe that we can think our way out of this "Omnivore’s Dilemma" and not have a future imposed on us. The place to do it is at Universities like Washington State University and that is why it was an easy investment – Go Cougs.