Those expecting a brawl got more of a lovefest when Whole Foods CEO John Mackey met with Michael Pollan author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma at UC Berkeley last night. The feud, if you can call it that, goes to back to a time shortly after the publication of the book when Mackey took issue with the quality of Pollan’s research, his criticism of Whole Foods and what he called “industrial organic”. Over the months that passed a series of letters were made public in which each seemed to take the other to task. Those letters can be found here:
Mackey complained that he wasn’t contacted by Pollan before the book was published and tried to argue that all “industrial organic” is not bad. Pollan challenged Mackey on the authenticity of the storytelling present in the store, and on how much produce was truly “local”.
The problem is and was, that Pollan and Mackey agree more than they disagree. While Mackey got his chance to explain his philosophy and to announce several new praiseworthy initiatives that deal with fair trade, animal welfare, support for local “food artisans” and loans for farmers and food producers, he admitted that criticism was good, and that it spurred a reexamination of their practices and a rethinking of their approach. Pollan in turn praised Mackey for the new initiatives and for being willing to so thoroughly engage his critics, something few CEO’s are willing to do.
It was surprising how unpolished and passionate Mackey was compared to the almost slick and sometimes snide Pollan. Mackey even went so far as to say the backlash against his company and the concept of organic has actually been good in some ways. Still Mackey doesn’t like being compared with Wal-Mart, and his philosophy of a more enlightened capitalism and movement towards a post industrial age he calls the “ecological era” puts him on the forefront of progressive businesses.
For his part, Pollan kept the conversation to a discussion more about the future than the present or the past in the discussion part of the program which was entitled “The Past, The Present, The Future of Food”. Pollan even envisioned a kiosk in a grocery store that would allow shoppers to scan items and see what was happening back on the farm for a kind of nanny-cam meets corporate transparency, a vision that Mackey seemed to embrace. Perhaps both Mackey and Pollan are ready to put down the gloves and make peace with the past and present (in addition to each other) and to make more room for a focus on the future.