It's just started and looks a real treat. I'll post updates as the discussion continues. Thanks, Sam!
I thought both the lecture and following discussion in "The Past, The Present, The Future of Food" were great. Thanks again to Sam for the web cam link on Becks & Posh, and to Shuna for the heads up on Eggbeater.
John Mackey presented a somewhat disjointed, but ultimately highly compelling, argument for the flaws in organic agriculture and taking it to the next level with sustainable, environmentally sound practices, third-party certification processes, and increased consumer awareness. Despite the large number of Whole Foods plugs - he is the CEO after all - there was a lot of value to be gained from what he had to say.
Michael Pollan was slightly more disappointing. I expected him to ask harder questions, but he threw Mackey a number of softballs. This can probably be attributed to their long correspondence, but I think it's telling when the hardest questions posed this evening were from the audience. I'm annoyed that Pollan cut the audience questions short after two in what I saw as a response to the hard time Mackey was having with them. In the entire two hours, I thought the most honest answers came during those first two questions, when Mackey was trying to think on his feet. Continuing with audience questions would have added greater value to the discussion, a good portion of which was a sales pitch for Whole Foods.
Overall, "The Past, The Present, The Future of Food" was a great experience. I'm glad I got to watch, and I think UC Berkeley did a great service by making it available live online. It's the only way I could have attended from Southern California.
Watch a recording of the live webcast.
Keep reading for the notes I took and posted in real-time during the presentation.
Looks like John Mackey will get 45 minutes to talk about the Whole Foods philosophy and to rebut the Omnivore's Dilemma before he and Michael Pollan begin their back and forth dialogue. Mackey seems articulate and quite intelligent.
Mackey starts off with a background of horticulture and how that ties into local farmers markets. He also links hunting and gathering to modern forms of food productions. He segues into a discussion of the history of agriculture. References Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations. Now he's onto the Green Revolution, pesticides, and the theories in Paul Ehrlich's the Population Bomb.
(He's very compelling. I'm quite impressed.)
(He's moved on to agribusiness, although before he "attacks it", he's spending a few minutes to defend the advantages gained though modern agribusiness.)
* Cheap food resulting in obesity.
* Increased productivity of animal food in trade for degradation in animal welfare and husbandry.
* Livestock in US consumes enough food to feed 2 billion people or a third of the planet's population.
(He's taking a break to take a show a video about factory farms. It's incredibly graphic and moving. I'm considering re-adopting the strict vegan practices in a traditional Buddhist diet.)
(Oh god. I think I'm going to be sick.)
(I have no words. I just... have no words.)
Mackey has started covering ecological agriculture and its advantages over agribusiness.
* Counterculture movement.
* Health of soil, welfare of animals, overall environmental well-being.
* Nature is good.
* Whole Foods and natural foods.
- Consolidated natural goods on a national scale.
- Improved overall health of Americans.
Artisan foods and regional cuisines
* Detrimental effects of fast food.
* Death of artisan food and regional cuisines.
* Slow Food movement.
* Whole Foods
- Feature artisan foods in all stores.
- Searching out local food artisans to feature in stores.
- $30 million VC fund to use to invest in unique food artisans around the planet.
Early organic movement
* Health of the soil
- Healthy soil = healthy food = health people
* No standards when Whole Foods started.
- No certification.
- No standards.
- Many con-men in the beginning of the organic fields.
- Communes and gun cults.
* Big organic farms are not necessarily bad.
- Big farms converting.
+ Don't necessarily embrace the philosophy.
- But big farms can be responsible and good for the environment.
(A lot of touting for Whole Foods, but some good information nonetheless.)
Facts and figures around the world. The bottom line is that the US doesn't have enough land dedicated to organic agriculture. Since demand in the States is outstripping supply, many of the organic products are being imported.
Organic farming has inadequate animal welfare standards. Missing sound ecological principles in favor. Rating system needed to differential quality of organic producers for consumers. Mackey is proposing the institute such a ranking system using the muscle of Whole Foods.
Pros - Exponential growth of farmers markets. Freshness. Keeps rural areas green and lessens fossil fuel consumption.
Cons - Cost more. Not necessarily organic. Doesn't necessarily follow organic principles. Keeps money local, but is that always a good thing. Fossil fuel savings have been exaggerated my proponents.
Breaks down fossil fuel costs in food consumption. 10% is spent by consumers cooking the food. Sometimes shipping in food burns less fuel than transporting local products. Depends on the method of shipping.
Some references made to Peter Singer's book, the Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter.
Whole Foods has floated a number of loans to local food producers to the tune of $10 million a year.
Buying foods produced in the third world helps reduce poverty. Farm subsidies in the US or EU and hurting small farmers in other parts of the world. The average farmer in the third world lives on less than $1 a day. The average cow in the EU receives over $2 a day in farm subsidies. This is why Whole Foods supports Fair Trade.
Whole Foods is outsourcing its import certification process to Fair Trade Federation and Rainforest Alliance to ensure impartial and quality policing.
Wherever Whole Foods imports products from, they feel they have a responsibility as global citizens to help support those communities.
(It's obviously partially a sales pitch, but I salute Mackey's vocalization of this principle, which is too often lacking in big business.)
Ocean over fishing due to the Tragedy of the Commons. Declining fish stocks. Issues with aquaculture.
(He's really putting a positive spin on Whole Foods; Repetition, repetition, repetition.)
Corporations aren't evil. Conscious capitalism can be a force for good.
(Mackey had some very interesting ideas in regards to using a large company to do good, and I'm glad to see he's putting his money where his mouth is by implementing them.)
Michael Pollan is marveling at the popularity of this topic. Wonders what Mackey's thoughts are on it.
Mackey believes the movement has reached a tipping point in mass consciousness. Believes that the quality, organic food revolution needs to happen now if it has any chance for success. However, there will be pushback from established agribusiness whose revenue sources will be threatened by the movement.
Pollan has asked Mackey who he thinks needs to be involved.
Mackey feels involvement needs to occur from producers, consumers, and government.
Pollan: What does government need to do?
Mackey: Regulate through legislation; waste production and animal cruelty/animal welfare.
Pollan: (Mackey) believes feedlots could be extinct in 20 year. Path to reach that goal?
Mackey: A lot can happen in 20 years. Crystallization of issue in collective consciousness. More alternatives will become available. People are being purposefully blind towards animal welfare since they don't see alternatives other than becoming vegans or vegetarians. As more alternative, humane sources of animal products become available, public outrage will shut down factory farms.
Pollan: Any current sources of humane animal products?
Mackey: Minimal ones. Most existing organic producers are "one star" producers, meeting the minimal, strict government guidelines for the organic label. There are very few producers that do more.
Pollan: Grass-fed beef?
Mackey: Trying to get it to the consumer, but still building up the industry.
Pollan: Inaccuracies in storytelling fliers by producers in Whole Foods.
Mackey: Not deliberate. Whole Foods doesn't vet the content of the fliers.
(Nice dodge, Mackey!)
(Damn! My web cast from Berkeley just cut out. Hope I can get it up again.)
(Sweet! I'm back on! Still paraphrasing.)
Pollan: Competition? Wal-mart?
Mackey: Wal-mart has never affected Whole Foods. Trader Joe's is the biggest competitor, so Whole Foods has been price-matching their products. Competition is good. Keeps you on our toes and forces you to grow.
Pollan: Whole Foods has gotten the public to pay more for food. Culturally, Americans pay too little for food. Changing American focus from quantity to quality. How does Whole Foods resist pressure from Wall Street to compete on price?
Mackey: Are price matching with Trader Joe's, but quality does cost more. If you're going to support artisan food producers you're going to pay more. You get what you pay for.
Pollan: Won't falling prices hurt food producers?
Mackey: Local producers have a number of virtues and advantages, and local foods will continue to grow. Americans are absolutely willing to pay more. What's Pollan's vision about the future of food?
Pollan: One of the nice things about being a journalist is that you don't have to have one (point of view). It's difficult to advocate policy as a journalist.
Mackey: You've complicated food purchasing decisions through your book.
Pollan: The decisions should be harder and should be a struggle. People should have to think through their food choices. Wherever they come out will be better than where they were before. Mackey advocates conscious capitalism. I advocate conscious eating. There's too much land devoted to corn. More should be used to support grass-fed beef. Need thousands of competitors, thousands of ideas. Organic agriculture is unsustainable. Need something in place once it collapses. Transparency in food production is crucial. If the consumer has complete transparency, food producers will clean up their acts.
Mackey: I share that vision. Something Whole Foods will start working on.
(Questions from the audience. Still paraphrasing.)
Pollan: Given over fishing issues, will Whole Foods discontinue seafood sales?
Mackey: (joke. long pause) Whole Foods refuses to sell endangered species, but internally, there are difficulties getting agreement within the company. Locating sustainable fisheries has been an issue. Deeply, personally concerned about this issue. Whole Foods needs to do more. Can't stop selling fish, since that will drive consumers to other stores. Best solution to sell sustainable species and to educate customers.
(Tough question. He flubbed it a bit, but was able to pull together a good answer.)
Pollan: Costs more to eat well. Least healthy calories are the cheapest. Diets of people with money are being approved. How do we make healthy foods available to the less fortunate?
Mackey: Economy continues to grow, and statistically Americans are getting wealthier overall. Americans only pay 8% of their disposable income for food. Compare to 40 years ago or to Europe. We have a culture where people are willing to spend $4 at Starbucks for a latte. They should be willing to spend the same on a bag of organic rice. If you're willing to cook, food isn't that expensive.
(Pollan has stopped asking questions from the audience, possibly due to how much trouble Mackey was having with them.)
Pollan: Whole Foods importing organic foods from China? Human rights and economic issues?
Mackey: Whole Foods limiting imports from China because consumers are concerned. But, China is just a whipping boy. The US has historically had a nation that it's feared; England, Soviet Union, Japan, Arab nations, and China. China has a great culture and is just returning to the position it's traditionally held in the world. Whole Foods is very careful in purchasing, and requires third party certification for all products.
Pollan: Does Whole Foods follow or lead in organic food trends?
Mackey: It's a dance. Sometimes its one, sometimes it’s the other. Contradictions exist as a result of dealing with multiple groups of people and multiple concerns. We all have contradictions and we're all guilty.
Pollan: Hopefully Whole Foods sees the increased scrutiny by journalists and other media as a good thing.
Mackey: Like competitors, critics force us to grow and make ourselves better.
(Sounds like they're getting a standing ovation.)
(The lecture is over.)
The Letters That Started it All: