BERKELEY – Why on earth would 2,000 people turn out on a rainy,
blustery evening to hear a conversation between a reporter and a
grocer? asked the former of the latter at a sold-out Zellerbach Hall
Tuesday night (Feb. 27).
The answer has two parts. The speakers were not just any reporter or
grocer, but Michael Pollan, best-selling science writer and UC
Berkeley Knight Professor of Journalism, and John Mackey, founder and
CEO of Whole Foods Market, the world's largest natural-foods grocery
chain. And they have been carrying on a dialogue of sorts about the
future of organic food ever since the publication last April of "The
Omnivore's Dilemma," Pollan's investigation into the U.S. food chain.
In a chapter titled "Big Organic," Pollan wrote "a few slightly
unflattering things" about Whole Foods, he told the Berkeley audience
— somewhat of an understatement. Stung by Pollan's criticism, Mackey
replied with a 25-page, single-spaced letter, kicking off an exchange
of messages posted online.
Industrial agriculture is primarily focused on increasing productivity
and lowering costs, and "it's been amazingly successful," said Mackey.
The system's major drawbacks are that it recognizes no values beyond
those two, yet it has taken an enormous destructive toll on society:
polluting the environment, guzzling fossil fuels, making Americans
fat, and giving so many antibiotics to animals that their efficacy in
treating humans is diminished.
It has also resulted in inhumane treatment of farm animals that
borders on the barbaric. Mackey, who became a vegetarian several years
ago after reading books recommended by animal-rights shareholders,
showed the Zellerbach audience a five-minute video (produced by People
for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and narrated by the actor Alec
Baldwin) depicting horrific practices common to factory farms:
overcrowding, the debeaking of chickens, dairy cows lamed by such
brittle bones they can barely walk to their slaughter, hogs dying
while in transport or even worse, not dying as they travel through the
slaughterhouse assembly line.
In the end, diversity in business and the marketplace are just as
important as biodiversity in agriculture, Pollan suggested. "I think
we need 'supermarket organic' and I think we need 'farmers market
organic.' We shouldn't be looking for the one right answer, and we
shouldn't be demonizing answers that might not be, to our minds,
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