Whole Foods responds to Michael Pollan

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey blogs an extended blog defenseto Michael Pollan’s critique of Whole Foods “industrial organic” model. The response is partly satisfying; it’s a good example of a business using blogging to participate in a public conversation about it’s business; and Whole Foods could go much further to use blog openness to be better corporate citizen.
The strongest part of John Mackey’s post is his explanation of Whole Foods support for local agriculture. With statistics about support for local farms, information about the decentralized purchashing practices of local and regional stores, and a history of Whole Foods’ role in reviving local farming with organic agriculture, Mackey makes a strong case against the accusation that Whole Foods is too big these days to support small local farms. The statistics about the declining use of pesticides and artificial fertilizers in some regions were particularly inspiring.
The defense of animal raising practices is less strong. Mackey cites one big organic dairy that Whole Foods doesn’t buy from because of it’s factory farming, and another big organic dairy that has improved it’s practices; but he doesn’t name names, and therefore doesn’t do a good job of rebutting Pollan’s specific critiques of the practices of brands found the Whole Foods shelves.
Mackey justifies shipping organic produce half way around the world because customers demand the products. This is a fine explanation for Whole Foods shareholders, but a non-answer for constituences who want agriculture to be sustainable. On the other hand, Whole Foods marks the origin of its produce, so US customers who don’t want to buy products from Chile and New Zealand con’t have to. This puts Whole Foods on a continuum of ethical choices; do you want to buy more local when you can, or do you want to avoid businesses that have anything to do with global transport of food.
It’s a fine thing that Mackey and his executives used the blog podium to publicly explain Whole Foods practices. The post was open to comments, and the conversation around the post was discoverable with Technorati or other blog search tools. Michael Pollan responded to Mackey’s post in a NY Times column republished on his blog, and moderated his tone in response to Mackey’s letter, encouraging Whole Foods to do what’s in it’s power to live up to its stated philosophy instead of using the philosophy as an empty marketing slogan.
Whole Foods could do even better to communicate its day-to-day efforts on behalf of local and sustainable food by blogging more; by having divisional and regional managers blog about what they’re doing. More information about Whole Foods day-to-day execution of their practices would help build their reputation where they deserve it, and make it harder to obfuscate in areas like energy use and animal farming.
One good thing about following the blog debate was finding some interesting blogs about local food, including Small Farms and Saute Wednesday, the blog by the editor of a newspaper about sustainable food in the San Francisco bay area.

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