Past, Present and Future of Food

As part of a recent public dialogue with Michael Pollan, I presented a slide show on the Past, Present and Future of Food. This slide show, as well as a link to a recorded version of the presentation and subsequent discussion with Pollan, are included in this blog post.


As an introduction to this material, I am sharing part of a monthly newsletter authored by Michael Strong, CEO and Chief Visionary for FLOW, a social entrepreneurial group I co-founded. He speaks to the events leading up to the conversation with Michael Pollan in Berkeley on February 27, 2007, as well as the greater meaning of the ongoing dialogue. Strong's article adeptly references the linkage between this current presentation and my previous blog post on Conscious Capitalism. I invite you to read it with those things in mind while I work on an expanded, written version of my presentation to be posted on my blog in the near future.


Per Michael Strong: "On Tuesday evening, February 27, 2007, I attended a public dialogue between Michael Pollan and John Mackey in Berkeley. It was an extraordinary event by any standard.


Last April, Michael Pollen's book The Omnivore's Dilemma was published and quickly became a New York Times best seller and has stayed on the list ever since. It was named one of the "10 Best Books of 2006" by the New York Times Sunday Book Review.


The book is a meticulous account of four meals: One from McDonald's, a second from "Industrial Organic," a.k.a. Whole Foods Market (WFM), a third from Joel Salatin's organic farm in Virginia, and the fourth one that Pollen hunted, gathered, and prepared himself. Not surprisingly, the dramatic narrative is from the "worst," at McDonald's, to the "most authentic," his own hunter-gatherer meal. In this continuum, the "industrial organic" meal from Whole Foods comes off as better than McDonald's but still relatively corrupt and impure. Pollan's book has had a substantial impact on our culture, especially on that sub-culture of people who are especially interested in food. When Pollan was in Austin for his book tour, John Mackey, Whole Foods CEO, invited him by to have a conversation about the book. John had felt that Pollan's book was not an entirely fair and accurate perspective on Whole Foods Market, and wanted to talk about the issues directly with Michael Pollan. This first conversation evolved into an exchange of letters between the two, which are available to the public in earlier submissions to this blog. Eventually Michael invited John to have a public discussion with him in Berkeley, and John agreed; thus the event on February 27.


To Michael's credit, he introduced John by explaining just how unusual this situation was. In general, when a journalist writes a book or article critical of a particular corporation, the corporation either ignores it or sends out a press release to counter the criticisms. For the CEO of a corporation that had been criticized in a prominent book to engage in the writer in an extended dialogue on the merits of the criticism was in itself unprecedented. For the CEO to then appear in public to discuss the criticism was even more unusual.


John began with a forty-five minute presentation (the entire evening, including John's presentation, may be viewed here). In it he surveyed the history of our food system, thus putting Pollan's criticisms in a historical context, and pointing out that the much criticized "industrial" food system had, in fact, been enormously successful at alleviating hunger around the world. He then explained Whole Foods Market's positive role in changing the way that people eat. His presentation went on to explain both existing and new initiatives that WFM is undertaking to make the world a better place.


I won't summarize John's talk here, or the subsequent conversation with Pollan, nor the Q&A session afterwards. Suffice it to say that in this history of corporate - press relationships, I am not aware of any comparable in depth exchange of views. It is fair to say that Pollan, starting off as a critic of WFM, was won over by Mackey's transparency, integrity, and sense of fair play. The Berkeley audience was similarly won over, and constantly interrupted John to applaud WFM initiatives.


John made it clear during the conversation that Pollan's attacks had been costly to WFM: in the time since Pollan's book came out, WFM has lost $2 billion in stock market capitalization. Although it is unlikely that Pollan's attacks are solely responsible for that drop, John did point out that Pollan's charges that WFM represented "industrial organic" led to a media "feeding frenzy" attacking and ridiculing the idea of "industrial organic," with WFM the main target. Given that current and prospective WFM customers would be the demographic most likely to have read Pollan's book and related media articles, it is likely that a book as high profile as Pollan's was did indeed have a large negative impact on WFM revenues and, consequently, stock price.


Given this context, John's response to Pollan was even more astonishing. He thanked Pollen for bringing to light justifiable criticisms of WFM that, in the end, led to new initiatives. And at the same time he clearly pointed out the ways in which Pollan's expectations regarding large-scale natural foods production and distribution were simply unrealistic in historical context. John calmly and appropriately brought the conversation around to a FLOW motto, borrowed from Michelangelo: "Criticize by creating."


One of FLOW's programs in development is "Conscious Capitalism." The goal of Conscious Capitalism is to move beyond the limited purview of "Corporate Social Responsibility," to a new perspective: One in which corporate purpose, integrity in pursuing that purpose, and transparency with respect to how an organization pursues that purpose are key, along with a deep recognition of the interdependent system of multiple stakeholders in which business functions. In a world of corporations that are purpose-driven, and which are acting out of integrity and therefore willing to be transparent regarding their practices, the reputation of corporations and respect for capitalism will improve dramatically. John provided an exemplary manifestation of Conscious Capitalism on the evening of February 27.


At the same time, we need to encourage Conscious Journalism, Conscious Activism, Conscious Politics, etc., all driven by purpose, integrity, and transparency, and a sensitivity to the interconnected system in which all function. For me one of the most telling moments of the evening was when Pollan expressed his surprise that his book might have cost WFM significant loss in revenues. Pollan's perspective was that he was simply practicing the art of journalism to the best of his ability. It had not occurred to him that he could cause great damage to others by means of his reporting. If he had actively believed that harming WFM was a necessary and justified action to take, then his journalism would have been conscious. His lack of awareness alone (watch the video and judge for yourself) reveals a lack of conscious action and intention on his part.


John's mature, relaxed perspective on Pollan's often misguided attacks are also an exemplary manifestation of the spirit of constructive dialogue. He was sincerely grateful to Pollan for helping him to develop a clearer perception of the path that WFM should take going forwards. May we all learn to become more conscious and thoughtful in all of our actions and responses, and may we all also learn to be more generous to those who fail to do so."

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Sherry says …

How hypocritical that these anti Whole Foods posters feel its OK to criticize John Mackey for his right to express his opinion but they can come on the store's website and tell him so? If you don't respect what his says, at least respect his right to do so. If you don't like what he says about healthcare then DON'T WORK FOR WHOLE FOODS because the last I heard, he wasn't the president, he can't change the way the government is run and he will probably bever have an effect on healthcare reform. He does have a say in WF's healthcare so if you don't agree, don't fill out an application.

J. L. says …

Thanks so much for giving your opinion and ideas. It was a very good article that you wrote.

Mark Tatt says …

I commend you for voicing your opinion but the mistake in doing so was going to a liberal opted newspaper such as the WSJ. Getting ostracized for this action is one of the first signs of where this country is heading. That direction is towards DICTATORSHIP when your right to freedom of speech puts you in harms way from the government. The people of this nation forget that the government is their employees and not control mongers as they've become. When an employee doesn't do the job they're let go and that they don't control the business at hand no matter what their position my be.

Hildegunn says …

Dear Mr. Mackey, I hope you read the feedback you get here, and continue engaging in the heath care debate with an open mind. The animosity that has erupted over this issue is astounding to me. I had heard people encouraging boycott of Whole Foods because of an article, and I am glad I stumbled upon this so I could read it. I appreciate your honest opinion and detailed explanation. I think this country needs honest debate and brainstorming like this. There are interesting points in the oped that describes what I think would be a good solution for the strong and healthy to try to stay that way. I can not see how it would work for the chronically ill. A savings account would not go far for a hemophiliac. A health insurance industry with no mandates would not want to take on a serious diabetic or cancer patient. I appreciate Mikes account of Canada. I can give similar testimony of the public health care in Norway. It is not true that treatment is rationed. My 80 year old aunt just had a knee replacement. As soon as she is healed enough, she will have a second one. It is true you wait for non urgent surgery, but so did my boss here in the US. And the wait is in months, not years. Hospitals and doctors have schedules. I have to schedule a physical at least 3-4 months in advance. Does that mean I am on a waiting list to get a physical? Offering tax deductible charitable gifts to the sick, will help the tax payer more than the sick. If you can afford to give gifts, you probably need the tax relief. I doubt if it will make much of a dent in the cost of treatment for an uninsured. How many cancer patients could you buy treatment for that way? I could not even give enough to cover one week of chemo. I am sure Mr. Mackey can afford more, but not enough to treat very many for very long. There are many powers at work here. Those who make a profit on heath care. Those who want to use this for political gain. And unfortunately, there is much ignorance. Too few Americans have a chance to travel to other countries and see how it is done elsewhere.

Olivia Carambat says …

I think we all agree that we could improve our health care system. MANY of us just don't want the government to be the one to fix it. I'm usually most at peace when those crooks are on vacation. I don't think we have to travel to other countries to see how it is done elsewhere. All you have to do is check out the Canada Free Press, or read the news in Britain! Those people are telling us DON'T LET THIS HAPPEN. Mr. Mackey had some very good suggestions, and it is silly for people to boycott Whole Foods because of his opinion!

Deano says …

Thank you for speaking for the majority of Americans that do not approve of socialized medicine as the answer to our healthcare woes.

Jacquie Davis says …

I'm looking for my friend Sara's response to the health care reform blog. She is British, and is quite familiar with Maggie Thatcher. Or Margaret, as many people call her. I hope that Sara's comments have not been suppressed. I notice that the comments here are largely supportive. A few are not. I have a very strong feeling that this is because not all opinions and blog responses have been published. Another thing that I notice is that the people who agree with you, attack those who disagree as denigrating you. They support your right to your opinion, but seem to feel that the right of those who disagree should be censored. Clearly, free speech applies to all. To John Mackey. To Sara. To Julia25. To me. Whether or not we agree or disagree, whether or not we can write English well or not, we all have a right to our opinion. That IS the very nature of free speech. I'd also like to respond to the silly statement that union members do not shop at Whole Foods. How the heck would that person have a clue about that? Was there a poll? I am a member of the SEIU, Service Employees International Union. We are hard working American people whose union has protected us from nepotism, wage discrimination, random firing, assured us fair wages, included us in contract negotiations, helped us to get some measure of pension benefits, and it is to the union that my family and I owe our excellent health care benefits. Many, many Americans do not enjoy the level of health care benefits that I do. So I hope that you pull up Sara's comment. I'm sure that it's hiding there somewhere

Mary says …

Great article! Most people would think that the CEO of Whole Foods would have a very liberal view on health care reform. It is refreshing to hear an opinion that is shared by most Americans out there. Now I feel even better driving an hour to get to a Whole Foods!

Frank Newsman says …

Thank God for someone with an intelligent, frank observation of this so called "health care crisis". The antagonism caused by your article is further proof that reasonable people cannot negotiate with a dictatorial mentality often associated with socialism. God Bless you, Mr Mackey. I've never been to a tree hugging store like Whole Foods but I am going to search them out from here on and shop there every chance I get. Godspeed!

lohn c. bivona says …

Thank you for the well developed thoughtful op-ed piece.

Alan Foster says …

I appreciate your article and your common sense (which seems to be in short supply)! I shop your store in Los Gatos and your article will only cause me to increase my patronage!

Candace Getschman says …

Great post, Just wanted to add that i am not able to connect to your rss reader, you might want install certain wordpress plugin for that to workthat.