I’ve always appreciated Whole Foods Market. They provided a place for people to purchase organic foods at a time when that wasn’t necessarily the cool thing to do. It’s nice and convenient to be able to walk into a Whole Foods and do one-stop shopping. And Whole Foods has basically destroyed many corporate models of the billionaire CEO who cannot relate to the lower level employees: lowest earners at Whole Foods make about $13/hr ($27,000/yr) plus very generous benefits, while company chairman John Mackey made only $342,000 in 2006. That is something to be respected.
But it’s important not to give Whole Foods a pass just because they have an employee friendly, organic-loving business mindset. Let us not forget that they are a MAJOR corporation and, as such, they have to make money. The major critique of the organic movement of today, and of Whole Foods, is the industrialization of organic farming. Where the organic movement of the 1960s and 70s stressed the negative ecological impact of pesticides and herbicides as well as monocropping, agricultural monopolies, and long-distance shipping, today’s mainstream movement focuses almost solely on pesticides and herbicides. This has allowed giant corporations to inject conventional factory-farm methods into the “organic business.” Hence the rise of California’s organic mega-farms which dominate the industry- and represent the bulk of products on offer at places like Whole Foods.
What’s the problem with that, really? Well, a lot. Growing organic produce or raising organic meats in industrial systems severely impacts the benefits that are associated with organics: industrial organics use more water, have increased soil erosion, require a lot of petroleum (from running farm machines to shipping the product cross-country), and do not safe guard against mistreatment and confinement of livestock. And most of the mainstream organic mega-farms are, in fact, owned by the same companies that sell conventional industrial products.
And that’s where things get particularly irritating for me. One of the key marketing strategies for industrial organics and, particularly, Whole Foods, is what Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma) called “supermarket pastoral.” It is now commonly referred to as farmwashing: using idyllic farm-fresh images to sell food, regardless of its provenance. Here are some images that you might find familiar.
Notice a pattern? The idyllic farm setting, the gently rolling hills, the sun shining on the perfect little farmhouse. Strange how similar they are? Not really. They are perfectly planned to appeal to our sentimental sides, the part of us that wants to believe in the wholesome family that gets up at dawn to harvest the wonderful, fresh food that grows on that farm. But none of those companies, save Organic Valley (maybe), has much to do with family owned farms anymore. Pictures of animal confinement, slaughter houses, and office buildings just don’t sell groceries though.
So you find yourself in a Whole Foods, looking at happy farm images, reading farmer profiles on banners, and seeing signs that say “Buying organic supports the small, family farmers that make up a large percentage of organic food producers.” And you feel good about doing the right thing. But what they don’t put on signs is that, while there are a lot of “small, family farmers that make up a large percentage” of the producers, their share of the sales and profits is minuscule compared to the industrial organics. And the organic apples that you are buying in February aren’t coming from those local, small farmers that are profiled. They are coming from South America.
Tune in for the rest of the story tomorrow.