Whole Foods Market co-founder and CEO John Mackey took the stage last Tuesday in a live discussion with Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma (Penguin Press, 2006) and director of the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, which hosted the sold-out event.
Pollan's book criticized Whole Foods Market for selling "corporate organic" foods while promoting a more pastoral image of organic farming, and Mackey in turn wrote to Pollan defending his company's strategies and vision. A public dialogue ensued via Internet at www.wholefoods.com and www.michaelpollan.com, culminating in Tuesday's event, billed as "The Past, Present, and Future of Food." Whole Foods also created new initiatives supporting local producers during the course of the Mackey-Pollan written dialogue.
After an introduction by Pollan, Mackey began a 45-minute slide and video presentation that briefly covered the history of agriculture. Today's emerging era of "ecological agriculture," in Mackey's view, is supplanting the industrial agriculture era that includes factory livestock farming, which he illustrated with a graphic video showing animal abuse in feedlots and slaughterhouses. Whole Foods Market has instituted animal welfare standards for its meat and dairy suppliers.
Mackey announced several new initiatives for Whole Foods Market during the slide presentation, including:
- $30 million in investment capital to assist artisan food producers around the globe;
- a "transparent organic farm rating system" to address customer interest in "beyond organic" attributes such as animal welfare, pasture use, and local sourcing;
- a "Whole Trade Guarantee" program in partnership with the Fair Trade Alliance and the Rainforest Alliance. Beginning in March, this program will include coffee, bananas, tea, chocolate and other sectors.
Mackey also discussed the company's ongoing animal welfare program, including development of animal welfare standards for farmed fish, ongoing Whole Planet Foundation activities, and discussed examples of the program to support local producers. Mackey also disputed some of the energy-saving claims made about buying local foods, and concluded his talk by saying that "corporations are not inherently evil," and a plea to "stop the morality play madness" founded in that viewpoint.
Following Mackey's talk, he and Pollan engaged in a lively conversation that included mutual admiration as well as some friendly contention; when asked what might be causing consumers to be less confident about the integrity of organic foods, Mackey replied, "your book," saying that Pollan had exaggerated the extent of the industrialization of organic.
Mackey said that Wal-Mart's organic program has had no effect on Whole Foods; Trader Joe's is the company's primary competitor, and Whole Foods has taken to matching Trader Joe's prices on some items. During his presentation, Mackey said that sales of certified organic produce at Whole Foods Market reached $450 million in 2006.
For his part, Pollan said that his vision of the future of food included "less corn," more biodiversity in business and in the marketplace as well as in the field, and transparency in the food system. He said that one of his goals with The Omnivore's Dilemma was to make people think. "Just by thinking through [where food comes from], wherever we come out is better than where we are," he said.
In concluding the event, Pollan thanked Mackey for engaging with his critics, and Mackey said that Pollan's criticisms had helped make Whole Foods Market a better company.