John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, made a guest appearance in Michael Pollan’s graduate level journalism class on food issues, hours before their much-anticipated discussion.
We got an inside-the-classroom look at Mackey from a new contributor, Carmel Wroth.
Pollan had cautioned the class against being too aggressive, but maybe it wasn't needed.
There was something about Mackey that makes you want to be on his side. He's so optimistic you get swept up in his good vibes and forward-looking energy. He even challenged the students to take on the mission of expanding the organic food movement beyond the 2 percent of food sales that his generation has managed to carve out.
Through a winding conversation, Mackey never let go of his theme: that natural and organic foods are in the early stages of evolution, but with imagination, faith and the entrepreneurial spirit, it can and will grow.
The subtext wasn’t hard to discern either—Whole Foods is the leader of that evolution, and deserves admiration, not criticism.
Mackey described his company’s plans to keep pushing natural foods forward, including their embrace the “Fair Trade” and “Rainforest Alliance” labels (both focusing on sustainability in the Third World) and their new “Animal Compassion Standards” which he hopes will eventually be adopted industry-wide.
In his all-embracing stance, he was quick to try to find common ground with local food supporters, like Pollan. He called it a “waste of time to have these arguments between local and organic” when both are such small niches.
He predicted a future when local agriculture would be in such a resurgence that there would be no need to fly in fresh produce from international markets (such as the much-maligned mushy asparagus Pollan described in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma). The only globally sourced goods would be things that can’t be grown locally like coffee and bananas.
Yet, somehow all the think-positive talk seemed to be blowing smoke over the very real challenges of scaling up the organic movement without betraying its ideals, or the small farmers once at its heart. Mackey simply brushed aside concerns that scaled-up large, organic farms are likely to be less in line with organic and ecological principles.
Humm ... We'll see how Mackey's positive mojo plays with the Berkeley crowd later this evening.
- Carmel Wroth