Natural Foods Merchandiser

Mackey, Pollan debate

Whole Foods Market co-founder and chief executive officer John Mackey took the stage Feb. 27 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 for selling "corporate organic" foods while promoting a more pastoral image of or?ganic farming, and Mackey in turn wrote to Pollan defending his company's strategies and vision. A public dialogue ensued at and, culminating in the Berkeley discussion, billed as "The Past, Present and Future of Food." Whole Foods 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," is, in Mackey's view, 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 has instituted animal-welfare standards for its meat and dairy suppliers.

Mackey announced several new initiatives for Whole Foods during the slide presentation, including:

  • $30 million in investment capital to assist global artisan food producers;
  • 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, which began in March and includes coffee, bananas, tea, chocolate and other foods and beverages.

Mackey also discussed his company's ongoing animal-welfare program, including development of standards for farmed fish; Whole Planet Foundation activities; and a program supporting local producers. He disputed some of the energy-saving claims made about buying local foods, and concluded his talk by saying that "corporations are not inherently evil," adding 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 includ?ed 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 organics.

Mackey said 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 tak?en to matching Trader Joe's prices on some items. He added that sales of certified organic produce at Whole Foods reached $450 million in 2006.

Pollan said his vision of the future of food includes "less corn," more bio?diversity in business and in the marketplace, as well as in the field, and trans?parency in the food system. He said one of his goals with The Omnivore's Dilemma was to make people ponder. "Just by thinking through [where food comes from], wherever we come out is better than where we are."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 4/p.9, 12

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