Ask not what the food movement can do for you…

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Nature abhors a vacuum, even one of ideology. When the counterculture becomes mainstream, a new counterculture must arise to take its place — and maybe throw stones and heckle the gangly new Goliath.

pollanmackey_001.jpgLast night 2,000 people filled Zellerbach Hall to hear Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and "Omnivore's Dilemma" author Michael Pollan discuss the future of food. Given that about half of them were food bloggers and Chez Panisse affiliates, the atmosphere was a lot more like a rock concert than a debate about organic food between two guys over 50. People started lining up in the rain before 6, at least one couple that we know of with a bottle of wine to keep them warm, and when the doors were open there was a mad rush to stake out seats.

Lots of local food-movement celebrities were in attendance, causing much craning of necks: Alice Waters, Marion Nestle, Bill Niman, and Deborah Koons Garcia. (That's Waters who Pollan is talking to in the Potato Non Grata's photo, left.)

After much angsting, my epic recap of the event just went up on the UC Berkeley NewsCenter, the highlights of which are after the jump. (The webcast just went up, too.) Sadly, across campus, even UC Berkeley journalism student Carmel Wroth long ago beat me to the punch with a funny-yet-still-informative account of last night, damn him. You can find it over at Sam Fromartz's blog, Chews Wise.

Fromartz, by the way, updated the paperback edition of 2006's excellent "Organic, Inc." with a 2007 afterword that covered the gentlemanly but still heated discussion going on between Mackey and Pollan. He wrote:

Both approaches, growth and purity, are necessary for the organic food industry to thrive. Growth cannot occur if the ideals become compromised, but the ideals can't come to fruition without growth. …It's all about diversity, not monoculture.

That "big tent" version of organic is a point of view in the same vein as Pollan's conclusion last night that "biodiversity in business and biodiversity in the marketplace are just as important as they are in our fields and on the farm."

Mackey is currently writing a book about conscious capitalism, for which he is soliciting input on his Whole Foods blog; this year he cut his salary to $1 permanently, saying he has "enough money." He kicked off the event with a 45-minute, text- and chart-heavy PowerPoint presentation on the evolution of agriculture and the organic market. Several people have griped that it sent them straight to sleep but I found weirdly fascinating, even though little of it was news to me. I guess I was amazed that Mackey so obviously had put the whole thing together, fact by painstaking fact. ("It was absolutely clear that no public relations firm had any hand in your presentation," cracked Pollan.)

In case the preceding paragraph doesn't show just how far Mackey is from the typical Fortune 500 CEO, here's Pollan quoting the New York Times magazine in his introduction:

On a scale of CEO bluntness with Ted Turner is a 10, Mackey would rate an 8, or on a good day, which I suspect this will be, a 9. And on a scale of complexity he would be simply off the charts.

Mackey delivered as advertised. He showed a PETA video! Although he didn't disclose it as such — hat tip to the Waffler for identifying narrator Alec Baldwin's voice, which enabled me to track down the video's source. Be warned that the footage is brutal, but if you're reading this blog chances are good that you're not eating factory meat anyway. And if you are, then please, watch the video.

He also made several major announcements last night: a $30 million investment fund targeting artisanal food makers, the idea of a five-star rating system for organic produce and meat that will indicate whether farmers were following the label's bare-minimum criteria or going "beyond organic," and a new partnership with Fair Trade and the Rainforest Alliance to come up with an "ethically imported " label to be called "Whole Trade." Come on, you cynics — name one other Fortune 500 corporation that's doing anything close to stuff like this.

I'm going to venture out on a nonjournalistic limb here and opine that while some of the criticism of Whole Foods is spot on, particularly around ignoring local farmers, a lot of it seems simply a backlash against its success, which to some came with a heaping side of sanctimony. But any group that positions itself as an alternative to the mainstream — whether it's an indie rock band like R.E.M. or a independent film festival in Utah — and then becomes popular enough to supplant the dominant ideology is going to draw fire.

And yet, if Whole Foods is going to insist on transparency of its supply chain, finding out everything there is to know about its farmers so it can rate them, well, it's got to be able to take criticism as well as dish it out. I think Mackey can handle it.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere: John Birdsall from the East Bay Express posted the most scathing take yet many hours ago, and I just know he's going to say I drank the Kool-Aid and begged for more. Becks & Posh has a factual bone to pick. Cookiecrumb for once isn't mad, and offers some succinct takeaway. (Or should it be takeout?) Jen has a very even-handed, fair & balanced report — and links to a lot more accounts.

6 Responsesto “Ask not what the food movement can do for you…”

  1. Nosher of the North says:

    I really enjoyed your recap on the UC Berkeley NewsCenter. I think I got more out of it than watching the webcast.

  2. It was interesting and enlightening - And, I'll admit, a little too lovey-dovey for me. I was kind of shocked at how few hard-hitting questions Pollan asked and how much it seemed like a PR presentation for Whole Foods. At the same time, I did come away feeling more positively towards WF and more hopeful about the possibility of a somewhat unified vision of a new food movement.

  3. James Berry says:

    DQ: nice background info going beyond the event. I did a recap this morning on culinate, but I missed your PETA sleuthing.

  4. cookiecrumb says:

    Good work, DQ!
    Very nice, and thanks for the nod.
    (Well, thanks for a whole lot more, but...)

  5. farmboy says:

    Excellent coverage of the Pollan and Mackey dialogue. I look forward to watching the video, but I strongly suspect that DC represents both of their positions thoroughly and accurately. There is one very significant omission in their conversation and it is one that is almost inevitably missing in discussions about the growth/history of the natural/organic/sustainable food movements. With all the handwringing about Whole Foods, let's acknowledge that the good old cooperative grocery store was present at the creation of organic agriculture, has supported organic and local producers ever since, and is currently just as customer-friendly and professionally run as its corporate counterparts? For more detailed information, look into the National Cooperative Grocers Association – 108 members doing $800 million in annual sales and growing 15% per year. This Association does not include all of America's cooperative grocers, either; the 12,000 member Park Slope Food Co-op os not a member. (I love the PSFC's hardcore position: Not a member? Can't shop here!!) I guarantee that grocert co-ops do a greater proportion of their gross in organic/local than Whole Foods does with their $5.6 billion. The stores that survived the hole in the wall, bulk granola and tofu days of the 1970’s and 80’s are professionally managed, extremely service driven, and booming.
    I have wondered for years at the free publicity, largely favorable, that Whole Foods enjoys as the media-designated icon for all things green and organic. For goodness sake, the USDA had both its offical press conference announcing the National Organic Standards (publication of Final Rule, 12/00 and effective date of the Rule, 3/02) at the P Street Whole Foods in DC. By law, All retailers are exempt from certification requirements, even when their juice bars make and sell organic products. (I believe that Whole Foods is voluntarily certified). Talk about getting publicity that money can't buy! Hope this doesn’t sound like a soap box, but in a corporate driven culture, the shining success of people-before-profit cooperative grocery stores needs to be told.

  6. Lia del Rancho says:

    Whole Foods hasn't made much progress, post Pollan/Mackey debate. Grass fed beef is available only on Saturday, the polite Los Gatos store butcher told me this afternoon. How about organic grain finished? No, not on any day of the week.

    It's a frustrating experience, my several times yearly stop at Whole Foods. I want to like it, but I just don't. When the two Santa Cruz area stores are built, I doubt I'll be anything but a curious visitor. Long live New Leaf and Staff of Life.