Michael Pollan interviews CEO of Whole Foods

July 22, 2009

Check out this great interview (from 2007) with Michael Pollan and the CEO of Whole Foods John Mackey.  They talk about what Pollan brings up in the Omnivores Dilemma, and how eater responsibility plays out on the consumer and business level in grocery stores.  They spoke about the changes that need to be made in order to transform our food system.  First there must be a consumer demand for better produce.  The local and organic food movements are growing, but on top of that Americans must come to terms with how little they actually spend on food.  Mackey said that if everyone ate completely organic, the percentage of income spent on food would match that of Europeans (we spend a mere 8% on food).
He also said that there must be entrepreneurs and new compaines that work to reform the system by embracing environmentally responsible products or protocols. If we go all in, he believes that our current ways of farming and livestock production could be obsolete in 20 years. He mentioned that changing the food subsidies are a must.  He also insisted that a tax be instated for CAFOs and other factories of industrial agriculture based on the amount of waste they dump and the environmental destruction of their processes (like many other industries).
Pollan asked a lot about what really goes on in Whole Foods and how the company makes decisions. The fact that Whole Foods is happy to share where their food comes from is a testament to the quality of the food the company offers.  Tyson would never sit down with Michael Pollan and talk about the sustainability of their product or what can be done to improve the health of the land.
Michael Pollan suggested a scanner be installed in Whole Foods stores that  showed the customer the very farm their meat or eggs came from, what the animal ate, and how it was slaughtered. Other grocery stores would then be forced to do the same. His argument was that if people saw the CAFOs where most of the country’s livestock are raised, no one would eat meat. Mackey said he saw those scanners as a goal of Whole Foods.  Whole Foods knows all of their growers and visits many of the farms that supply them.
An audience member asked an interesting question.  He/she said that considering an estimated 80% of fish populations are over-fished, would Whole Foods ever discontinue the sale of fish.  The question makes you think about something they talked about earlier in the interview: where to draw the line between leading your customers and following them.  Mackey concluded that Whole Foods would probably not consider dicontinuing fish.  But that isn’t to say that the company doesn’t try to encourage their customers to choose more sustainable foods.  They believe in honest labeling so that customers can make good decisions.  If the less sustainable products don’t sell well, Whole Foods will gladly remove them from the shelves.
Polland and Mackey both agreed that our food system needs some dramatic changes.  They are dedicated to ecologically sound agriculture, and every step our agriculture can take to get even a little bit closer to that ideal.


2 Responses to “Michael Pollan interviews CEO of Whole Foods”

  1. Alex said

    Thanks for posting this interview! My only concern is that its one thing to say that you buy-in to sustainable farming and creating “food-system” that supports ecologically sustainable farming–but what about the sustainability of your company? What about the sustainability of the organic/natural food market. Whole foods has been notorious for being fiercely anti-union and Mackey has been cited as being all but cooperative in collective bargaining between the company and its employees. Also, the Employee Free Choice Act, an Act that Sierra Club strongly supports, has received little support from big companies like Whole Foods. Sierra Club’s support comes from its desire to support fair, green jobs–why hasn’t Whole Foods supported this from the beginning?

    In addition, Whole Foods has created a sort of monopolization on organic/natural foods, knocking out many local co-ops and locally owned grocery stores. Now this may be the price we to start a movement and bring these types of foods to the mainstream, but its at least something we should consider–diversity may be key, instead of whole foods turning into the Walmart of organic foods.

    While I’m playing bit of devil’s advocate because Whole Foods does do a lot of good things–its important to think about sustainability in broader terms.

    • Aubergine said

      Thank you. This is an issue I struggle with constantly. There is no question that some local businesses and farmers’ stands are more sustainable than big corporations like Whole Foods. On the other hand, Whole Foods is setting a standard for the big corporations out there. There will undoubtedly be big, cross-country companies in the American market. When they begin to care about the environmental effects of their products, they can enact huge changes. It is as Michael Pollan says: if the 40 million acres of corn grown for HFCS was switched to organic it would be a huge gain for the environment and for agriculture, but it would be a loss as well. That is why Pollan is a “beyond organic” kind of guy. His stance, and mine as well, is that we should try everything we can to improve our food system. That means buying locally whenever possible, and it also means supporting big companies like Whole Foods. That isn’t to say there should not be a line drawn, Michael Pollan suggests perhaps at Organic Coca Cola, but in the grand scheme of things Whole Foods is making things better. They are directly funding farmers to produce grass-fed beef, for instance. A multi-billion dollar corporation like Whole Foods can change a lot of farms. As to the treatment of their employees, this is not my area of expertise. The only thing I can say is that companies must make sacrifices, and it is impossible to satisfy everyone. Hopefully they will continue to search for a better balance and support the laws that Sierra Club and other important organizations vouch for.

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