By Tom Still

MADISON – Author Michael Pollan says we shouldn’t eat anything our great-grandmothers wouldn’t recognize as food. I don’t know about your great-grandmothers, but much of what mine would have recognized as food was deep-fried in grease or boiled into mush in hopes it might still be safe to eat after sitting around all day in an unrefrigerated cupboard.

“In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto,” the book that UW-Madison Chancellor Biddy Martin selected as the inaugural offering for a campus-wide reading program, contains many other axioms intended to reduce a complicated subject into an uncomplicated creed. Who can argue with “Don’t buy your food at the same place you buy your gasoline,” “plant a garden,” “buy locally when possible,” “make meals from ingredients, not packages,” “eat at the table” and “eat slowly”? Not our great-grandmothers – or our mothers, for that matter.

Ah, but if life was as simple as Pollan’s book would have you believe. Pesky realities keep getting the way, such as a century’s worth of public health improvements, food science innovation and transportation breakthroughs that have made modern life possible for those 300 million Americans who don’t live on their great-grandmothers’ farms and who are really glad they don’t.

That’s why the latest effort at “sifting and winnowing,” which is how the university sometimes defends decisions to poke sharp sticks in the eyes of major constituencies, has created a backlash far beyond the borders of the campus. It’s not that Pollan’s book is wrong-headed, malevolent or anything else than what it offers to be – a critical view of American’s eating habits and the system that helps to produce them. But it largely ignores the contributions of modern agriculture and food science to feeding a world that would have long ago starved if not for a steady march of innovation that allowed more food to be produced more safely, at less cost, and with increasingly less effect on the environment.

No small share of that innovation was born over the decades on the UW-Madison campus, which makes it all the more amusing – and potentially grating – that “In Defense of Food” was the first to be anointed in Martin’s “Go Big Read” program.

Technology transfer is a phrase today that means moving all types of campus inventions from the laboratory to the marketplace. For most of the first 100 years or so of the UW-Madison’s existence, however, tech transfer was largely about agriculture. It meant getting the latest science into the hands of farmers and others who brought nutritious foods to market. This dedication on the part of UW researchers spawned entire industries and pioneered methods to plant, cultivate, harvest and process foods that changed lives for millions of people.

In many ways, this tradition of farm innovation represented the origins of “The Wisconsin Idea,” which is the notion that great ideas shouldn’t be confined to the borders of the campus. Game-changing ideas produced on campus should be available to benefit the state, the nation and the world.

With that tradition in mind, it’s understandable that some people in Wisconsin see a contradiction in the Chancellor’s office granting special status to a book that turns its back on scientific work diligently carried out over time. Farm groups have sounded off, of course, but so have a few voices on campus.

In a commentary posted on the “Go Big Read” website, UW-Madison Professor John A. Lucey noted Pollan’s antipathy toward food science and rose to its defense.

“Food science serves several critically important functions or roles in our society,” wrote Lucey, a food scientist. “… With the shift in population from rural to urban areas, food science has provided the means to feed consumers who no longer have the opportunity to grow their own crops or tend their own animals… Food science has developed a range of ready to eat meals or food that require less preparation time. Food scientists study how to preserve foods during transport or storage, they study what organisms might grow on these foods and develop methods to destroy those organisms that pose a danger to consumers, and they explore how to maintain the quality of the food that the consumer expects.”

Michael Pollan’s world is idealistic but also more than a bit dangerous, unless you believe starvation in pursuit of over-simplification is an acceptable outcome. Let’s hope the sifting and winnowing around “In Defense of Food” isn’t too tone-deaf to consider that possibility.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and a lecturer in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.