Mark your calendars: Whole Foods’ John Mackey to face off with Michael Pollan
I just got word that the long-anticipated
smackdown conversation between food detective Michael Pollan and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey is finally on! I haven't been this excited about an event since 10th grade, when I camped out overnight for tickets to see R.E.M. on the New Orleans stop of their Life's Rich Pageant tour. (I threw Michael Stipe a bracelet from my front-row seat and was devastated when he didn't pick it up.)
With luck — and my Berkeley connections — I won't need a sleeping bag for tickets to this event, which is scheduled for 7 p.m., February 27, in Wheeler Hall Auditorium at UC Berkeley. Sponsored by the Knight Program in Science and Environmental Journalism, for which Pollan teaches, tickets are free and will be available starting February 1. Ticket details will be posted on the Journalism School's website at some point and of course, here.
Somehow unaware of how highly anticipated this event is and why? Pollan devoted a whole section of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" to taking Whole Foods to task for contributing to the industrialization of the organic food movement, while maintaining a misleading version of its dirt-bedecked roots by, among other things, displaying prominent photos of farmers — a marketing technique that Pollan dubbed "supermarket pastoral." He also critiqued "Big Organic" for moving to massive monocultures of organic crops, long transportation chains, and less-than-transparent animal care practices: in essence, for starting to resemble the very beast that the original movement tried to slay.
Stung, Mackey — who cofounded Whole Foods in the 1970s and is oft-described as a visionary among the "values-driven capitalism" set — fought back. He posted a long letter to Pollan on his blog defending Whole Foods as a leader and pioneer in the organic-food movement, and criticizing Pollan for not talking to him first. A fascinating back-and-forth conversation began between the two men. Mackey eventually announced a program to encourage each Whole Foods store to buy from local farmers and hold farmers markets in the parking lots, as well as a $10 million fund for small farmers to improve their practices and ramp up production sustainably.
When I interviewed Walter Robb, the co-president of Whole Foods, in October for a business magazine, he bristled at the mention of Pollan and said that the new initiatives had been in the pipeline long before "The Omnivore's Dilemma" came out. Robb — who really, really impressed me with his passion and convictions — said that while he thought T.O.D. was a great book, the food detective had "held us to a higher standard" and had painted an unfair picture of not only Whole Foods, but also Petaluma Poultry, home of Rosie the Organic Chicken.
(My article just came out last week (free registration required). Note: the cheesy headline was used over my protests. I'm working on posting the entire interview for Ethicurean readers, as some of the most interesting stuff didn't make it in.)
The Feb. 27 event is officially billed as a talk by Mackey titled "The Past, Present, and Future of Food," to be followed by the conversation with Pollan. Regardless of who you're rooting for, this is going to be one hell of a discussion.
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