Mackey and Pollan Take the Stage

03/09/2007 - 6:22 PM
I had a chance to witness a truly surreal event last week:
  • A sell out audience of two thousand people filling a theatre to hear a conversation about food supply chains and production.
  • A Fortune 500 CEO receiving several ovations in Berkeley.
  • That same CEO showing a five minute clip outlining some horrible animal welfare abuses in his industry (with a commitment to be part of the solution).

The event was a conversation at UC Berkeley (webcast here) between John Mackey, the visionary and plain spoken CEO of Whole Foods Market and Michael Pollan, the sharp and talented author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and one of Whole Foods’ more vocal critics.

The two have been engaged in an ongoing “dia-blog” for some time. Rather than a rousing debate, however, what emerged was a shared vision of a how to assist those who care to better understand where their food comes from. Heavily featured in the conversation, of course, was the 'T' word – transparency. The shared ideal was that consumers who know more will do what is best – for the planet, for social good, and for themselves.

Much of the discussion revealed how complicated this can be in practice. While some consumers advocate slow or local food buying, for example, it turns out that rice grown in Bangladesh is more energy efficient for US consumers than California-grown rice. In supporting European dairy farmers, the EU gives each cow the equivalent of $2.50/day, more than the income of 2 billion people on the planet. Aquaculture, while preventing the over-fishing of the world’s oceans, has environmental issues.

Fair Trade and other sustainability initiatives are not immune from these challenges. At TransFair, for example, we have a strong commitment to connecting markets in the global North with farmers and farmworkers in the global South. This isn’t always a dilemma since many Fair Trade crops are only grown near the equator, but we are supporting global food sourcing. In our view, it is important to support trade to countries such as Ethiopia - which earns a majority of its export revenue from coffee. To us, this is part of being a global citizen, but not everyone sees eye to eye with us about promoting global sourcing. Clearly while offering choice is important, sometimes the choices aren’t black and white.

Whole Foods has decided that the best idea is to venture beyond passively offering choice on the shelves and facilitate investment in progressive alternative food production methods, as well as to help educate consumers about the impact of their consumption. These efforts are part of Whole Foods’ commitment to Conscious Capitalism. Not just choice, but real alternatives and informed choice.

John covered some new ground in his talk, including declaring support for third party certification, and making a public commitment to Fair Trade. It was especially gratifying to see the latter, and his commitment reflects the desire of Whole Foods to engage actively with us in offering consumers more chances to choose to support small farmers and farm workers via Fair Trade.

Michael asked if Whole Foods’ responsibility was to lead consumers towards ethical consumerism, or simply follow and capitalize on consumer trends. John indicated that is a bit of both. Whatever the case, we hope this is the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

Next week: Talking coffee in the desert.
03/09/2007 - 6:22 PM
03/09/2007 - 6:22 PM