ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

With GE Crops, Pesticide Use Rose Dramatically Over 13 Years

Despite industry claims to the contrary, the adoption of genetically engineered crops has led to dramatic increase in pesticide use over 13 years, according to a new report.

The report, released by the Organic Center, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Center for Food Safety, put the increase at 318 million pounds, even taking into account the 64 million pound reduction in insecticides for GE corn and cotton. The report was written by Organic Center chief scientist Charles Benbrook. 

Farmers, who have planted ever more acres with GE crops, are also battling a rising tide of herbicide-resistant superweeds, which is leading to rising pesticide applications, new seed development, and higher costs.

The price of GE seeds has risen precipitously in recent years, and the need to make additional herbicide applications in an effort to keep up with resistant weeds is also increasing cash production costs.As an example, corn farmers planting “SmartStax” hybrids in 2010 will spend around $124 per acre for seed, almost three times the cost of conventional corn seed. In addition, new-generation “Roundup Ready” (RR) 2 soybean seed, to be introduced on a widespread basis next year, will cost 42 percent more than the original RR seeds they are displacing.

The full report can be read here and a further summary at Civil Eats blog

USDA National Organic Program Gets New Leadership, Change Coming?

The USDA announced new leadership at the National Organic Program, which probably comes not a moment too soon. The program, which regulates organic agriculture in the US, has been beset by criticism. Now, with renewed focus, it will hopefully push forward. 

WASHINGTON, Sept. 17, 2009 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that Miles McEvoy has been hired to serve as Deputy Administrator of the National Organic Program (NOP). McEvoy assumes his position on Oct. 1. Vilsack also announced that the NOP will become an independent program area within AMS because of the increased visibility and emphasis on organic agriculture throughout the farming community, evolving consumer preferences, and the enhanced need for governmental oversight of this widely expanded program. Organically grown and marketed agricultural products are of key interest to the Obama Administration, and the NOP will be receiving increased funding and staffing in the new fiscal year.

"Miles McEvoy has worked in the field of organic agriculture for more than two decades and has a solid understanding of the challenges and opportunities facing the organic community," Vilsack said.

For more than 20 years, McEvoy led the Washington State Department of Agriculture's (WSDA) Organic Food Program, one of the nation's first state organic certification programs. In 2001, he helped establish the WSDA Small Farm and Direct Marketing Program. From 1993 until 1995, McEvoy was the founding Director of The Food Alliance, a program that blends sustainable farming practices and social welfare components into an eco-label program.

Read the rest of the release here.

USDA's Merrigan on Organic Standards: "The honeymoon is over. It’s time to show the world that our standards have teeth"

In an interview with Organic Processing magazine, USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan made extensive comments on the national organic program, regulations and the state of the industry. Here are some excerpts.

...In terms of enforcement, the integrity of the organic label is fundamental to the growth of this industry. If consumers don’t have confidence in the label, industry growth will stall—it’s just that simple. It’s not a matter of expanding standards, but making sure the standards we have are enforced. I understand that it takes a while for standards to really sink in and for people to fully understand the rules of the game.

But, the honeymoon is over. It’s time to show the world that our standards have teeth; that we mean them and if people are not adhering to the standards, they’re going to be kicked out of the program. It will take staff work and it will take eyes out in the field because the USDA can’t be everywhere all the time. Part of our enforcement program has to be based on whistle blowing within the industry itself.

OP: What other challenges do you see for organic? Do you have suggestions about ways in which the industry will be able to meet these?

Merrigan: I’m going to tell you what I think the biggest challenge is—and I know I’m like a broken record on this, or a broken CD or iPhone—but the point is that the biggest challenge the organic community faces is internal. It is about not letting the “perfect” be the enemy of the “good”; not to self-destruct by pointing accusing fingers at each other.

There’s definitely a need for whistle blowing on enforcement issues, but I think this community sometimes explodes issues unnecessarily on the front pages of the newspapers, which leads to consumer confusion and erosion in belief for the organic label. People need to keep their eyes on the prize and think of this as a long-term haul and to just be really cautious before they throw bombs. (Emphasis added).

OP: How do you think the Obama administration is going to help support organic growth, and what opportunities do you see for organic now that there’s finally support from Washington?

Merrigan: President Obama and the First Lady are deeply interested in healthy food choices and are particularly concerned about the childhood obesity epidemic in this country.

More than ever, they are going to bring visibility to the issues of healthy eating. That presents those of us working at USDA with great opportunities, as well as great opportunities for those in the organic community.

Is Organic in an End Game?

By Samuel Fromartz

Last week, the WaPo ran a story headlined “Purity of Organic Label is Questioned” -- a quasi-investigative story on how the organic “program's lax standards are undermining the federal program and the law itself.” 

I say quasi-investigative because it wasn’t particularly news. The tension discussed in the article, between those who have always sought to expand the industry and those who seek a more purist vision, has been fodder for many articles and was the subject of my book Organic, Inc. -- published 3 years ago. Often those camps are presented as big corporations on the one hand (chipping away at regulations) and small farmers striving to keep things pure on the other, both at one another's throats.

Consistent with that narrative, the article asserted that big corporations were compromising the organic label by lobbying for questionable “synthetic” ingredients in organic food. Small farmers like Arthur Harvey -- a blueberry farmer -- were trying to limit these additives. But before we get into that simplistic framing of the debate a bit of background would be useful.

What are synthetics and why are they important?

Under the USDA rules, a product can carry the “organic” label if 95% of the ingredients are “organic.” Processed organic foods, such as organic yogurt, crackers, cookies, cereal, etc., can carry the word "organic" if they meet this 95% threshold. But they can use approved non-organic ingredients in the remaining 5%. And these may be “synthetics” that must win a specific exception. Among them are baking powder, Vitamin E and C, xanthum gum (a thickening agent), pectin and lecithin. But as the article points out, the list has ballooned to 245. 

Although "corporate firepower" has lobbied for these exceptions, nearly every company in the processed organic foods business uses them, from independents like Newman’s Own Organics to farmer owned co-ops like Organic Valley and companies like Stonyfield Farm, which has a cameo in the film Food Inc. In short, though some are controversial, you would be hard pressed to find any processed organic food business arguing for a blanket dismissal of all synthetics. (For more background on synthetics, see “How the Media Missed the Organic Story”). 

Who controls those decisions? The National Organic Standards Board -- a citizens advisory panel -- explicitly controls the list of synthetics and makes its decisions at public hearings. But as the article pointed out, the National Organic Program at the USDA has taken a few decisions on its own that have stirred much controversy and tarnished the program's reputation.

The article states that the organic law enacted in 1990 prohibited synthetic ingredients in processed foods. This was true, if only because there were very few processed foods at the time. It should also be noted that synthetics were and are used in organic farming (chemical pheromones to disrupt mating cycles of insects, plastic mulch to prevent weeds, copper fungicides with limitations) but these were exempted because they were viewed as more benign than toxic chemical pesticides and herbicides. Plus, organic farmers had used them for years.

Harvey, the Maine blueberry farmer, sued to disallow all synthetics in processed organic foods and he won his case in 2005, causing a world of worry in the organic industry. But, as the article states, the Organic Trade Association lobbied for a rider to be inserted into an appropriations bill that changed the underlying organic law a year later and allowed synthetics to be used after all. This was not, however, just at the behest of big business. Smaller and independent companies that depended on these substances wanted a change as well, though many NGOs and some companies opposed it. The issue caused a lot of conflict in the organic world.

As for corporations, they haven't always lobbied for looser regulations. Earthbound - the organic produce giant - had misgivings about changes to the organic law and lobbied against it. Mars Inc.'s organic seed company, Seeds of Change, has fought to require farmers to use organic seed (a stricture too-often ignored by even small farmers) and Dean Foods, the owner of the Horizon Organic label, lobbied for a tougher pasture regulation, even though the company had previously benefited from loose regulations on its giant dairy farms. 

Why would a "corporate giant" lobby for a tougher law or regulation? Once they produce an organic product  it is in their interest to keep the regs tight so that it makes it harder for newcomers to enter. If they are loosened, it lets new players in who don't have to face the expenses and trials of doing organic right. (That's why a lot of transitioning farmers complain or avoid organics altogether -- it does take a different skill and knowledge set to farm organically and many won't bother or don't want to take the risk). 

In the WaPo article, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont -- the father of the organic law -- says, "If we don't protect the brand, the organic label, the program is finished. It could disappear overnight." He is right. But when a lot of these conflicts were going down -- in the pitched battles over synthetics, in the fights over the rider -- Leahy was publicly silent. My sense is he knew this was a factional battle and was unwilling to take sides; his larger concern was at the USDA itself, whose bureaucratic fumbling on a number of matters now is front page news.

In trying to notch up the volume on this age-old fight, the article veered into histrionics and inaccuracy:

...the USDA program's shortcomings mean that consumers, who at times must pay twice as much for organic products, are not always getting what they expect: foods without pesticides and other chemicals, produced in a way that is gentle to the environment.

The article never supports that particular assertion. How have these compromises allowed pesticides into organic food? How have they eroded the environmental claims of organic farming? 

Although pesticide testing is not mandated for the organic label, studies could not find any signs of pesticides when children ate an organic food diet. (In contrast, when they ate conventional foods the pesticide residues showed up). These studies are more conclusive than testing for residues on the food because researchers actually looked at what children were eating and what came out in their urine. The pesticides weren’t there. In my reading that shows consumers are getting what they pay for: foods without chemical pesticide residues. 

As for synthetics in processed food, there will always be two camps on this -- and both present risks. If synthetics are taken out, even over a sunset period, as Harvey had sought, organic processed foods would fade off the shelves. Maybe that's not a bad thing, but the organic industry would be a lot smaller. If, on the other hand, too many synthetics are let in, and we start getting more organic junk food with a long list of  unpronounceable ingredients, that will spell the end of organics too. (A memorable petition at one NOSB meeting I attended came from an English muffin manufacturer who claimed they needed a synthetic ingredient to extend the muffin's  shelf life. My feeling was -- don’t make a fucking shelf-stable organic English muffin!).

Many people in the organic world recognize these tensions. They usually aren’t the ones quoted in media stories because they don’t have prominent web sites with action campaigns. But they are out there. Many had a hand in writing the laws and regulations. They attend every NOSB meeting. And they are still active today. Many sat on the NOSB. Few if any work for corporations.

There have been many stories about the corporate sell out of organic food, and people often say to me, "organic doesn't mean anything any longer." In other words, why buy it? That's the conclusion people come to because they read more about big brands compromising organics than about organophosphate pesticide residues in kid's urine. 

Companies like Dean Foods aren't helping their own cause by launching a line of non-organic milk under the Horizon label, just as they did with Silk soy milk. Their rationale probably was, well nearly everyone has a non-organic natural label, even Stonyfield, so why not us? Meanwhile, prices are being cut for organic dairy farmers and they are being told to reduce production. 

Writing in 2005, I concluded Organic Inc. by saying I didn't think organic food would be more than a niche in the overall food market and that the factions within it might well blow it apart. Sadly, in the midst of a deep recession, both assertions seem to be playing out.

After Lapses, Wal-Mart Steps Up Organic Oversight

Wal-Mart agreed to step up oversight of its organic labeling, after the state of Wisconsin cited the company for numerous inaccuracies.

According to the Cornucopia Institute, which first raised the issue last year, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection told Wal-Mart’s legal counsel that “use of the term ‘Wal-Mart Organics’ in combination with reference to a specific non-organic product may be considered to be a misrepresentation and therefore a violation” of Wisconsin state statutes. 

The AP reports that Wal-Mart "said Tuesday it has given updated guidelines to its employees." The story continues:

Wal-Mart said that green tags on their shelves, which identify food as organic, may have inadvertently or mistakenly been placed, or accidentally shifted in front of the wrong item.

"Our green organic signing is for additional consumer convenience to show that an organic alternative is available. It is not a label," the company said in a statement. "The USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) certification label is featured on the packaging of the organic selections we offer and consumers should always rely on this USDA certification label for proper organic verification."

That quote is an interesting bit of semantics, since it essentially says shoppers should understand the difference between a "label" and a "sign." We're not sure the USDA organic program would agree.

Wal-Mart said it is working with store associates to have the identifying tags checked periodically for accuracy.

James Rabbitt, director of the state Bureau of Consumer Protection, said that as long as Wal-Mart keeps in place additional measures to ensure that nonorganic products are not identified by shelf tags as being organic, his agency will not pursue the matter further, other than to monitor Wal-Mart's practices for compliance.

BIG Organic Java Victory

Organic Coffee is safe, for now.

In a victory for organic farmers in the developing world, the USDA's National Organic Program has backed down and said that for now there will be no immediate change in the way these farmers are certified.

The NOP had previously announced that it was changing certification procedures for these farms. The change would have increased costs sharply and choked off the supply of organic coffee, cocoa and other crops grown by farming co-ops in the Third World, an issue I wrote about on

In a statement issued Wednesday, the NOP said it would work closely with the National Organic Standards Board -  the citizens advisory panel on organic regulations - before making any changes. This comes after a petition campaign which generated thousands of signatures, even in the absence of any major media coverage.

For those who think organic regulations have been compromised by big business, this shows - as other actions have in the past - that transparency and advocacy work.

The NOP statement can be read in full here.

- Samuel Fromartz

USDA to Rule on Organic Coffee Limits

I've written extensively about a USDA decision last year that could shut down markets for organic coffee, cocoa and bananas from the developing world. Now, it appears that this spate of publicity and activism on the issue has caused the USDA to listen.

Last Thursday, representatives from the National Organic Coalition, Equal Exchange, Rural Advancement Foundation International USA, and the National Cooperative Grocers Association met with the USDA to discuss the issue. They also presented a petition with more than 300 organizations and 3,600 individual signatures objecting to the policy. (A copy of the letter and signatories is posted in a pdf here).

In an email, the National Organic Coalition said "the USDA is promising a statement of clarification very soon. We are uncertain as to what that statement will look like, and we remain concerned." In a separate statement Equal Exchange said:

The USDA assured us that they had heard from us, and you, “loud and clear” and that in “two or three days” they would issue a statement that they thought would make us “happy.” They would not share any more details other than to offer a little more explanation of how they perceived the issue.  Given the stakes, complexities and interests involved, we cannot assume that the USDA statement will completely solve the problem.  (Also, given the nature of any federal agency, it could actually be weeks, not days, before they release their statement.)

Chews Wise will report on this important ruling as soon as we get word. Updates are also available at Equal Exchange's web page.

- Samuel Fromartz

How Transparency Works

By Samuel Fromartz

I just read three pieces that show the power of transparency in the food system.

First was the op-ed in the Times I missed yesterday on the conditions of sows in the pork industry (should we call it the pig industry?). Nicolette Hahn Niman points out that Smithfield Farm recently decided to stop using gestation cages which "virtually immobilize pigs during their pregnancies in metal stalls so narrow they are unable to turn around."

Getting rid of gestation crates (already on their way out in the European Union) is welcome and long overdue, but more action is needed to end inhumane conditions at America’s hog farms.

Of the 60 million pigs in the United States, over 95 percent are continuously confined in metal buildings, including the almost five million sows in crates. In such setups, feed is automatically delivered to animals who are forced to urinate and defecate where they eat and sleep. Their waste festers in large pits a few feet below their hooves. Intense ammonia and hydrogen sulfide fumes from these pits fill pigs’ lungs and sensitive nostrils. No straw is provided to the animals because that would gum up the works (as it would if you tossed straw into your toilet).

You get the picture. I saw another email on how this sort of knowledge is affecting producers - in this case, in the dairy industry. The source was Dairy Line, a trade publisher for milk producers.

They are concerned that "well-funded activists" are raising questions about rBST, the synthetic growth hormone that pumps up milk production (and reduces the productive lifespan of cows). They blame the activists, but the fact is, consumers are voting for rBST-free milk with their wallets the more they hear about the issue.

As organic milk - which cannot be produced with synthetic hormones and antibiotics - has raised awareness on this issue, other non-organic milk companies have followed suit and are banning rBST (which is not approved for use in Europe).

The email goes onto state that "similar scenarios have developed in other arenas in recent months ... issues that affect poultry and pork production and 'We’re concerned dairy is coming under the same kind of attack,'" the email said.

As consumers learn more, production methods come under greater scrutiny and traditional agriculture feels the heat. It's happening across the food system.

Finally, transparency can effect decisions at the farm. Albert Straus, of California's Straus Family Creamery (an organic milk producer) decided to test his feed for GM contamination. According to Time magazine, he "was alarmed to find that nearly 6% of the organic corn feed he received from suppliers was "contaminated" by genetically modified (GM) organisms.

So Straus and five other natural food producers, including industry leader Whole Foods, announced last week that they would seek a new certification for their products, "non-GMO verified," in the hopes that it will become a voluntary industry standard for GM-free goods. A non-profit group called the Non-GMO Project runs the program, and the testing is conducted by an outside lab called Genetic ID. In a few weeks, Straus expects to become the first food manufacturer in the country to carry the label in addition to his "organic" one.

The bottom line: Transparency changes food production decisions. It is now having a measurable impact on what we eat.


Did an Organic Advisory Panel Punt on Cloning?

By Samuel Fromartz

That's the question we're asking and here's why.

The USDA's National Organic Program said in January (pdf) that a cloned animal cannot be organic. But it wanted a recommendation from its main citizen advisory panel on what to do about progeny - that is, the offspring of clones, which is the main way that clones will enter the food supply.

Rather than answer that question head on, however, it appears that the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) - the main citizen advisory panel to the USDA on organic food regulations - has sidestepped the issue.

The NOSB's livestock committee came out with a <a href="
vestock/CloningRec.pdf">policy recommendation on cloning (pdf) that sounds, well, wishy washy when it comes to progeny. The document states:

The NOSB concurs with the NOP and believes that the existing federal organic rules prohibit animal cloning technology and all its products. To strengthen and clarify the existing rules, the NOSB recommends that the NOP amend the regulation to ensure animal cloning technology, and all products derived from such organisms be excluded from organic production.

So far so good. But then the next sentence reads:

Furthermore, the NOSB is very concerned with the issues involving the progeny of animals that are derived using cloning technology, and will work with the NOP on further rulemaking recommendations as issues are identified.

What we're wondering is why the NOSB didn't outright recommend that the progeny of clones be banned as well? Evidently, one NOSB board member was wondering the same thing in this 6-to-1 vote on the recommendation.

The dissenting vote (Kevin Engelbert) reflects a belief that the Livestock Committee should also recommend a rule change ... to prohibit livestock, progeny of livestock, reproductive materials, or any other products derived from animals produced using animal cloning technology (includes somatic cell nuclear transfer or other cloning methods) from being used as a source of organic livestock.

Reached by phone, Engelbert told me that the committee was concerned that there was no test on the market to identify progeny. He argued that the availability of a test should not be the benchmark by which to judge this technology. On principle, progency should be banned and farmers and certifiers should work toward that principle.

As the recommendation states: "If the FDA does not require clones to be tracked, consumers are very likely to turn to organic products, under the assumption that clones are not allowed in organic production."

We could not have said it better, which is why it's in the NOSB's interest to come out on a firm stand against the progeny of clones - just as it did with clones themselves. Comments on this issue can be made for the upcoming NOSB meeting in Washington, D.C., on March 27-29.

Organic "Power Brokers" Hit D.C.

We're outing the power lobbyists of organic farming!

But first a few questions.

Do they work on the famed "K St." corridor in Washington, D.C.? No. Are they on a first-name basis with senior lawmakers in Congress? No. Do they have a big Washington association behind them filled with former administration officials and congressmen? No. Do they stay at expensive hotels in town? No.

Actually, they're farmers who had to stay in a hotel way out in Maryland.

Left to right: Tony Azevedo, Double T Acres, Stevenson, Calif.; Kathie Arnold, Twin Oaks Dairy, Truxton, N.Y.; Maureen Knapp, Cobblestone Valley Farm, Preble, N.Y. all certified organic farmers.

As Azevedo says: "We go in the front door and get a nice reception but I imagaine that there's other people going in the back door."

Azevedo and others were in town suggesting that Congress allocate more money for organic farming in the current round of the farm bill -- at least to a level commensurate with its growing role in agriculture. The Modesto Bee had a good piece on the issue. The farmers seek

- a $50 million-a-year grant program to assist farmers in adopting organic practices (which would be a new program)

- $5 million annually to help farmers offset the cost of attaining organic certification (refunding an existing program now out of money). This is the only subsidy specifically for organic farmers, amounting to a grand total of $500 per farm, to offset the costs of organic certification.

- a $25 million-a-year organic farming research program (about double the level currently).

Right now organic food is about 3 percent of the food supply. So if it were to get 3 percent of the $2 billion USDA research budget, that figure would amount to $60 million. Azevedo and others don't think that will happen. They even worry that the $25 million they're seeking now is a long shot.

How much does organic research get now? About $12 million in total, according to Mark Lipson of the Organic Farming Research Foundation.

Where is Organic USA?

The Organic Farming Reserach Foundation posted a nifty little map, showing the location of all certified organic operations in the United States. It also linked the data into Google Earth, so that you can zoom into your neighborhood. Not surprisingly, the majority of operations are concentrated on the West Coast, Upper Midwest, and Northeast. But these only refer to certified operations, so a tofu plant in Watsonville, California gets the same size dot as a 1,500-acre wheat farm in Montana.

Organic USA map

Mackey-Pollan Smackdown Turns Love Fest

By Carmel Wroth

AMUSE-BOUCHE: Local, of course

The pre-event reception to the Michael Pollan-John Mackey discussion drew quite a crowd.

Hungry (and penniless) graduate students rubbed shoulders with well-heeled foodies, including superstar chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, nutritionist and best-selling author Marion Nestle, and Bill Niman, co-founder of Niman Ranch meats.

Of course you’re wondering what there was to eat.

Guests munched on goat cheese fritata, artisanal salami, and crostini, decked with green olive tapenade, warm hedgehog mushroom spread with fresh grated romano, and duck liver pate.

All locally sourced, naturally!

Conversation buzzed—everyone was excited to see the two food luminaries talk. Or maybe they were just pleased they had scored tickets (people were soliciting them on Craig’s List before the event.)

Whole Foods employees had come from far and wide to see their boss.

“John Mackey is cool,” said Elizabeth Wade, a team leader at the Petaluma, California, store.

David Evans, Marin Sun Farms’ owner, who sells his grass-fed meat locally (and not in Whole Foods), said he hoped the Pollan-Mackey conversation would shed light on how “small farms can access a bigger market without sacrificing integrity.”

Yes, indeed, the question of the night.

FIRST COURSE: History Lesson

To start things off, John Mackey - co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods - gave the crowd of nearly 2000 people a 45-minute food history lesson, complete with colorful Powerpoint slides.

He walked us through the entire history of food procurement and production. Six discreet stages of food history from hunting and gathering to Whole Foods Market!

Okay, that’s not entirely fair. Mackey believes that a new era of food is emerging to replace industrial agriculture--what he calls ecological agriculture--and naturally it’s bigger than Whole Foods.

He seems to think his company is the heart of the movement (it may well be), and he clearly articulated a vision for a sustainable alternative to industrial food.

He also broke some news (as he seems to do every time he appears with Pollan). Whole Foods has established a $30 million venture capital fund to make equity investments in artisanal food companies. This presumably comes on top of a $10 million fund set up for farmers last year.

Secondly, the company is launching a “Whole Trade Guarantee” fo the company’s commitment to source certified ethically traded products.

How can you be cynical about this man?

SECOND COURSE: Smack-down Letdown

As the dialogue got under way, there was a rustling of expectation in the audience. The provocative debate was about to begin, right?

After all, these were the two men who disagreed so strongly about whether the organic food business was lapsing into industrialism that they conducted a heated, months-long online argument. (See our previous post for links on the debate)

In person, though, they were almost painfully gentle with one another. They sparred, a little, I guess, but it was more like couple's counseling than a duel.

For starters, there were admissions of mutual gratitude and admiration. Mackey had learned from Pollan. Pollan appreciated Mackey.

The denouement came when Pollan asked Mackey if he blamed the company’s recent stock devaluation on his less than flattering chapter on the Whole Foods. It went like this:

“Well you probably cost us about $2 billion,” said the natural foods tycoon. “Easy come, easy go.”

(Audience laughs)

“Seriously???” (Culinary poet laureate grimaces painfully).

Mackey described how a flurry of unflattering press followed the book, including frequent comparisons to Wal-Mart.

Pollan looked contrite.

Mackey melted: “Aw, I’m just pulling your chain a little bit, Michael!”

What are righteous eco-consumers to make of this not-so-spirited interchange? If you want to see a debate, as one audience member suggested, invite people who are really on opposing sides of an issue.

Pollan and Mackey originally did have their differences, but when Pollan came up with his eloquent critique, Mackey moved rapidly to turn Whole Foods' sustainable battleship in line with Pollan’s vision—or to emphasize the ways it already was already doing so (sourcing more local foods in stores and moving forward with supporting domestic grass-fed meat, for example).

Pollan, for his part, politely closed ranks with perhaps the most influential man in organic and natural food circles, which is, you'll recall, the alternative to 98 percent of the food supply.

Mackey had his own criticism of Pollan, saying “big organic” is not as big and bad as the author claimed.

“You exaggerated the extent of industrialization of organic,” he said, even adding his most contentious comment, “you’ve done some damage!”

Pollan said he “didn’t intend to demonize” big organic. Organic Coca-Cola would be fine by him. (Say what?)

Which leads us back to a fundamental question raised by the evening's discussion, can organic scale up without selling out? Is there a way to produce and distribute enough organic food to reach the vast majority of the population, or will organic food remain in its gilded 2 percent niche?

DESSERT: A challenge

With all these weighty issues on our minds, Mackey asked one last question.

“What is your contribution going to be? What are you going to do to support ecological agriculture?”

Other than shopping at Whole Foods and the farmers' market? We're still pondering that one.

(The Webcast of the event is archived here)