Foodie journalist Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (review here; interview with Pollan here) makes some disturbing points about the increasingly industrial character of organic agriculture. It uses as its exemplar of "industrial organic" the burgeoning Whole Foods Market.

Whole Foods founder and CEO John Mackey took quite a bit of umbrage at that, and responded with a long, passionate letter about the work his store has done to nurture the organic movement and local agriculture.

On his blog (which is stupidly behind the NYT $elect wall), Pollan responds at some length.

Both letters are interesting reading, but the dispute basically boils down to Mackey saying "we do buy local" and Pollan saying "it doesn’t really seem that way, but I sure hope you move in that direction." They are more or less in agreement on the direction things need to go.

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I thought this point by Pollan was apt:

In the same way we now need (as you pointed out in our meeting) to raise the bar again on American agriculture, we need to raise it on the American eater too, teaching him about the satisfactions (and nutritional benefits) of eating in season, from his locality, and from a food chain based on grass rather than corn. I think we agree that this is where the "reformation" now is headed; you are in a position to lead rather than to follow it there. To do so is also, I daresay, in your company’s self-interest: as competitors like Wal-Mart and Safeway move into selling industrial organic food, Whole Foods can distinguish itself by moving to the next stage, doing things they can’t possibly do. "Local" surely is one of those things: and your buyers already know exactly how to do it. All Wal-Mart knows is how to source industrial organic food from China.

It’s inevitable that some store — if not Whole Foods, an upstart competitor — will begin defining itself with local and artisanal foods rather than simply organic. I suspect that market will be small for a while, but energy costs will make it a necessity eventually, and whoever’s positioned to take advantage will reap large rewards.

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