Paul Polman: A radical CEO

Paul-Polman-chief-executi-005“We’re the world’s biggest NGO,” Paul Polman, the chief executive of Unilever, sometimes likes to joke.

Literally, he is correct: “We’re a non government organization. The only difference is, we’re making money so we are sustainable.”

Lots of money, in fact. As one of the world’s biggest consumer products companies, with such brands as Dove, Hellman’s, Axe and Ben & Jerry’s, Unilever generated about $67 billion in revenues and $7.2 billion in profits last year.

But while Polman has led a turnaround at Unilever since becoming CEO in 2009, he is best known because he is outspoken about his belief  that “business should serve society.” He sounds more like the leader of an NGO like Oxfam or Greenpeace than your typical CEO. He’d rather blather on  about the Millenium Development Goals than boast about his company’s earnings.

More important, Polman’s Unilever uses its global to work for change, around a set of big issues, ranging from curbing climate change to eradicating poverty to deforestation.

That’s why the Center for Global Development, a DC think tank, honored Polman the other night with its “Commitment to Development: Ideas in Action” award. Previous winners include Global Witness, the One Campaign and Oxfam. Polman is the first business guy to get the award, as best as I can tell.

One reason: Unilever’s strong commitment to reducing deforestation, which helped drive the decision late last year by Wilmar, the world’s largest palm oil producer, to sign a “no deforestation” pledge. Wilmar’s commitment has the potential “to create a global revolution in how we grow food,” Scott Poynton, executive director of The Forest Trust, wrote last month in Guardian Sustainable Business. Palm oil is used in a variety of foods, as well as personal care products, like soap.

At the awards dinner, Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development, said of Polman:  ”He is surely the most outspoken and effective advocate for reducing the amount of deforestation that takes places to produce consumer goods.”

I went to the award ceremony not because I hadn’t heard Polman before — we spent time together last year when I profiled him in Fortune, under the headline Unilever’s CEO has a green thumb — but because he is such an outlier in the business world and I wanted to hear what was on his mind.

He didn’t disappoint. Some highlights from his remarks:

On the need for government policy to curb climate change: “We need to have the business community in the US speak up more, and then the Republicans will have to listen.”

On the urgency of dealing with global problems: ”First and foremost, I am a businessman. I like to get to action. This worldis very long on words and very short on action.”

On the importance of sustainable development: “It is desperately needed that we build a new economic world order where we live within planetary boundaries.”

On global inequality: “The top 1.2 billion people consume 75 percent of the world’s resources. That is a system that is not in equilibrium.”

On the exploitation of garment workers in Bangladesh, who are paid 11 cents an hour“That’s as close as you can get to modern-day slavery.”

On the opportunity to have an impact: ”In the next 15 years, we as a generation have the opportunity to be the people who eradicate poverty in a meaningful and sustainable way.”

On the need for business to step up to deal with social and environmental issues: “If you don’t make a positive contribution, you will be rejected…I  don’t understand why more CEOs don’t see this.”

The long journey to “sustainable travel”

tr-travel-smart-ff-miles-608Global travel is a huge business. A billion tourists traveled the world during 2012, and the industry generated more than $2 trillion in direct global contribution to GDP from business and leisure trips, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).

So it’s unfortunate that the travel industry–which depends, more than others, on a healthy planet–is just beginning to get serious about measuring and reducing its environment impact. That, at least, is my conclusion after surveying leading US-based hotel, airline and rental car companies. What’s more, as I’ve thought about the travel business, it’s hard to envision what a truly sustainable travel industry would look like. To dramatically reduce the environmental impact of travel will require the widespread adoption of low carbon fuels, the decarbonization of the electricity sector and radically “greener” buildings, all of which appear to be many years away.

I wrote about the travel industry and sustainability for the current issue of a trade magazine called Global Business Travel Magazine. The industry is clearly moving in the right direction. The question is, at what pace and scale?  In my story on hotels, I wrote:

Every major hotelier—Starwood Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, IHC, and the rest—has invested in energy and water efficiency, reported its carbon footprint online, reduced waste, organized “green teams” of engaged employees, and embraced social programs ranging from recycling soap and toiletries to teaching employees to recognize and report human sex trafficking. That’s all well and good, but these efforts are not yet comprehensive or comparable in a way that would allow corporate travel buyers and managers (or, for that matter, leisure travelers) to measure one hotel chain against another. Nor are there reliable, broad-based, third-party standards, ratings, or rankings that reward industry leaders and shame laggards, as there are in other business categories, ranging from seafood and forestry to cell phones and appliances.

Essentially, hotel owners and operators have focused on efficiency–a relatively easy win-win because it saves hotel operators money and earns them green credibility. But efficiency can take the industry only so far (pun intended).

My story identifies Marriott as the industry leader but goes on to say that

Marriott—like all of its rivals—is still struggling to balance the goal of sustainability with the need to grow its business. Despite putting a wide range of efficiency measures into place, the company has added rooms in recent years, and as a result its greenhouse gas emissions have grown from 3.19 million metric tons in 2007 to 3.55 million metric tons in 2012—an increase of 11 percent. Scientists say that businesses and individuals have to reduce their absolute carbon emissions dramatically to limit the risks of catastrophic climate impacts.

Can the hotel industry grow while reducing its environmental footprint in absolute terms? It’s hard to see how, at least in the short run. The environmentally responsible thing to do is to travel less. For business travelers, that means meeting via teleconferences and eliminating some trips; many companies are doing that, of course. As for leisure travel, staycations, reading National Geographic or watching the Travel Channel can’t substitute for the real things. And there’s an obvious downside to traveling less: About 101 million people around the world earn a living from the travel biz, according to the WCCT, and some of those jobs will disappear if the industry shrinks.

Airlines are, if anything, in even more of a pickle that hotels. Yes, newer planes are far more efficient than older ones, but the best way to sharply reduce carbon emissions from air travel is by substituting biofuels for petroleum-based fuels. The trouble is, biofuels today are very costly. A carbon tax would encourage airlines and airplane manufacturers to invest more in low-carbon fuels, but the US airline industry has lobbied hard against the EU’s attempts to impose a carbon tax on international air travel because it would raise the cost of plane tickets. Meantime, comfort and efficiency are often at odds. Planes configured to carry more people are good for the planet but not so good for the traveler in the middle seat of row 42.

All of this is a reminder that big environmental problems like climate change simple can’t be solved by individual companies or industries. They require radical system change. This is why it’s so important for responsible businesses to make themselves heard in the public policy arena. The travel industry ought to be a loud voice for a carbon tax and for government support of research into clean technology. That’s the best strategy to bring about a low-carbon economy, and to protect the beautiful places that people like to visit.

You can read my travel industry story here.

Small is beautiful. Maybe.

imgres

There’s lots to like about Alter Eco, a San Francisco-based food company that aims to do social and environmental good. The company supports poor farmers, sources from cooperatives, offsets its carbon footprint, etc. Better yet, its products are tasty. I’m partial to the organically-grown, fairly-traded Dark Quinoa Chocolate Bar, which you could think of as a politically correct (and pricey) version of Nestle’s Crunch.

There would be even more to like about Alter Eco if it was a bigger company. The challenge for its founders,  Mathieu Senard and Edouard Rollet, who I visited last fall in San Francisco, is to figure how to drive growth without compromising their values.

My story about Alter Eco, which ran this week at  Guardian Sustainable Business, begins like this:

What would a truly sustainable food company look like? That’s hard to say, but a small company called Alter Eco, which sells quinoa, rice, chocolate and sugar grown in Latin America, Asia and Africa, offers a clue or two.

Striving to hit the very highest environmental and social standards, Alter Eco sources only Fair Trade commodities, buying from small-farm co-operatives. Its products are certified organic. It offsets its carbon emissions. And, when the founders could not find packaging that satisfied them, they designed their own: a bio-based, backyard-compostable package with no petroleum or chemicals or genetically modified corn.

“We are trying to push the envelope towards full sustainability,” CEO Mathieu Senard says.

The trouble is, Alter Eco is small – it reported just $7m in revenues in 2012. When I visited co-founders Senard and Edouard Rollet at Alter Eco’s headquarters in San Francisco, they told me that sales topped $10m in 2013 and are expected to jump 44% to $14.5m this year. “We can go to $100m in the next five to 10 years,” Senard claims.

That said, big food companies measure their sales in billions, not millions. General Mills booked sales of nearly $18bn in the 2013 fiscal year, meaning it does more business in a day than Alter Eco does in a year. For small, socially responsible companies like Alter Eco to have a big impact, they either need to grow rapidly, or influence their much larger competitors, or both.

Part of the problem facing Alter Eco is pricing. Paying Fair Trade prices, sourcing from smaller coops and carbon offsets all cost money, costs which have to be passed along to consumers. (That 2.82 oz. quinoa bar retails for about $3.50.) Higher prices, of course, limit demand–and growth. This is a challenge that has been overcome by a handful of values-driven food companies, including Starbucks and Stonyfield Yogurt. But not many.

You read the rest of my story here.

My radical plan for McDonald’s

1272056932627So I like McDonald’s. Really, I do. The fries. The coffee. Even the (850 calorie for a large!) strawberry McCafe Shake. The clean bathrooms, too. It’s my default place to stop when driving more than a few hours.

I also like the people I know who work at McDonald’s. Bob Langert, the company’s sustainability chief, is a great guy. Their PR folk are unfailingly gracious. And I’m told by a friend of the CEO, Don Thompson, that he’s a terrific person, too.

But–and you knew there was a “but,” didn’t you?–McDonald’s has a big problem. Actually, a couple.

The company wants to sell the world as many hamburgers as it possibly can. Beef, when produced at an industrial scale, is a terribly inefficient way to deliver protein to people. The production of beef requires more water and more land, and generates more greenhouse gas emissions, than the production of chicken or pork or, goodness knows, vegetable protein. Maybe the easiest way for any of us to do our part to deal with the climate crisis is to eat less beef. So long as McDonald’s is pushing burgers, it is, in effect, pushing climate change and deforestation, not to mention obesity and heart disease, at least for those consumers who do want the company wants them to do and eat more burgers. McDonald’s response to this is to join in the Global Coalition for Sustainable Beef–a laudable idea, and one that could reduce the environmental impacts of beef. But I’m skeptical about how far and how fast coalitions like this will take us. (See my 2012 story for YaleEnvironment360, Should Environmentalists Just Say No To Eating Beef?) The evidence, when you look at similar efforts to produce “sustainable” palm oil or fish, is decidedly mixed.

Then there’s the inequality problem, which is all over the news lately, and for good reason. CEO Thompson made $13 million or so in 2012. The front-line McDonald’s worker makes less than $20,000 a year. Many rely on government assistance to get by. I don’t begrudge Thompson his paycheck, but something’s amiss when the people who work for him need help from the government to feed their families.

What should McDonald’s do? I tried to address that question in a story today for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

Promoting its Dollar Menu and More, McDonald’s says: “An empty stomach shouldn’t mean emptying your wallet, too.” A Bacon McDouble – beef patties topped with bacon, American cheese, pickles and onions – costs just $2. A bargain, no?

Alas, the price of a burger does not reflect its full cost. The environmental impact of beef is staggering: on average, 6.5 kilograms of grain, 36 kilograms of roughage and 15,500 cubic meters of water are required to produce one kilogram of beef, according to the new Meat Atlas from the Heinrich Boll Foundation, an environmental non-profit. What’s more, beef generates more greenhouse gas emissions than cheese, pork, turkey, chicken, eggs or vegetable protein.

Then there are the costs of supporting those who cook and serve burgers: More than half (52%) of the families of front-line fast-foodworkers are enrolled in at least one government-funded safety net program, according to a 2013 UC Berkeley Labor Center study titled“Fast Food, Poverty Wages”. The research estimates the industry-wide cost to these programs, very roughly, at about $7bn. Median pay for front-line fast-food workers is about $8.69 per hour, which comes to a bit more than $18,000 per year. And we won’t even consider the costs of treating the health problems that are caused by consuming too much processed food.

All of which raises a question: how can a company that depends on cheap meat and cheap labor become sustainable, responsible and even admirable?

You’ll have to read the rest of the story to see the full answer, but, in essence, I argue that McDonald’s should do three things.

(1) Nudge its customers to eat less beef.

(2) Raise the wages of its workers, publicly and proudly.

(3) Become an advocate for a price on carbon.

Will this happen? Probably not. Could it happen? I’m curious to know what you think.

My sustainability mood swings

800px-Solar_panels_on_house_roofTwo steps forward, one step back.

The other day, Guardian Sustainable Business published my story about SolarCity, a remarkable success story in the world of sustainable business. Solar City, which provides rooftop solar power systems to homes and business, is growing fast, and its stock is on a tear. The company says it will deliver solar energy to 1 million homes by 2018, and last month it started its own foundation to deliver solar to schools in the poorest parts of the world.

Here’s how my story begins:

For US rooftop solar company SolarCity, rapid growth is bringing new opportunities – as well as a backlash.

The San Mateo, California-based firm has installed rooftop solar systems on more than 100,000 homes (by my estimate), and signs up a new customer every five minutes. It employs more than 4,200 people, and hires 15 more workers each day. Shares of the company, which sold for $8 at its initial public offering a little more than a year ago, now trade for $59, as of Friday.

And, in a sign of its maturity, SolarCity has just launched the Give Power Foundation, a non-profit that will donate solar power systems to schools in poor countries in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

It’s unusual for a young company that isn’t yet making profits to start a foundation, but Lyndon Rive, SolarCity’s founder and CEO, told me by phone: “We’re now at a scale that it’s something that we really want to do, and we’re just going to bear the costs.”

You can read the rest here. And, of course, SolarCity isn’t the only fast-growing solar firm. Sungevity, SunRun, Sun Edison and others are all growing, too, although all are depending on government subsidies, at least for now. It’s hard not to feel optimistic about where the solar industry is going.

Vegas-style innovation

Vegas-style innovation

Now I’m in Las Vegas, a city built on hopes and dreams (“C’mon, baby, just one more spin of the roulette wheel…”) and I’m feeling a bit pessimistic about the future. To be sure, the city’s big hotel and casino operators — MGM Resorts, Las Vegas Sands, Caesar’s and others – are investing many millions of dollars to save energy and water, and reduce their carbon emissions and waste. But the Strip is awash in neon every night, the slot machines blare sound and music 24-7, the traffic is horrible (yes, it’s the week of the city’s biggest event, the International Consumer Electronics Show) and the feel of the place is either tacky/ugly/excessive (the $24.99 two-pound hamburger sold in the restaurant in my hotel) or or over-the-top luxurious/excessive. To the right is a banner for a combination strip club and shooting range, enabling patrons to celebrate sexism and violence, under one roof.

I’m guessing my mood to change again in a few hours. I’m going to moderate a panel with Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, Sasha  Lezhnev of the Enough Project and the actor and activist Robin Wright on the topic of conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.In a keynote speech at CES on Monday evening, Krzanich announced that all of Intel’s microprocessors are now validated as conflict-free for gold, tantalum, tin, and tungsten. The company has led the electronics industry’s efforts to cut off the lucrative trade in minerals that supported armed groups in the eastern Congo and its neighbors.

The result? As Krzanich and John Prendergast of the Enough Project wrote in a USA Today op-ed:

Rebel groups now generate an estimated 55 to 75% less funding from three of the four conflict minerals, according to Enough Project field research, because it is much more difficult to sell untraceable minerals on the global marketplace.

This is an important story about an industry trying to do the right thing. More to come…

[Disclosure: Intel is paying me to moderate the discussion on conflict minerals at CES.]

The future

9780300176483The bet between the biologist Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon, which was described as  ”the scholarly wager of the decade” by the Chronicle of Higher Education, was settled without drama–or graciousness. As Paul Sabin writes in The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future:

One day in October 1990, Julian Simon picked up his mail at his house in suburban Chevy Chase, Maryland. In a small envelope sent from Palo Alto, California, Simon found a sheet of metal prices along with a check from Paul Ehrlich for $576.07. There was no note.

It was a victory not just for Simon but for optimists everywhere, and so a fitting way to start the year of 2014. The two men–who did not like one another–had in 1980, at Simon’s urging, placed a $1,000 bet on the price of five metals ten years hence. Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb warning of a coming global catastrophe had made him a celebrity, as well as one of the most influential environmentalists of all time, believed that food, energy and commodities would all grow scarce, and thus more expensive over the decade. Simon, a free-market economist, had enormous faith in the power of markets, prices and innovation to solve problems. (Before the bet, Simon was best known as the inventor of the auction system used by airlines to pay passengers not to take overbooked flights.) Between 1980 and 1990, the prices of the five minerals–chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten–had fallen by an average of almost 50 percent.

Simon was lucky as well as smart. A global recession in the early 1980s depressed the prices of metals, and they never recovered. As Sabin reports in his first-rate and very readable book, economists who ran simulations of the bet during every 10-year period between 1900 and 2008 found that Ehrlich would have won the bet 63 percent of the time. Yet the history of the past 45 years, since Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, weighs heavily in favor of Simon’s worldview. Market signals, human ingenuity and technological progress have solved problems that Ehrlich said would doom us all. [click to continue...]

Sustainable business: What’s ahead in 2014?

equipmentprotection3So the answer to the question above is, honestly, it’s anybody’s guess.

As a reporter, I’ve always resisted the idea of what editors like to call “forward looking” stories. Predictions are fun, but it’s hard enough to fully understand the present and the past. My preference is to leave the future to fortune cookies.

So when an editor at Guardian Sustainable Business asked me to write about the year ahead in sustainable business, I’d ignored her and took a look back instead. Here’s how my story begins:

It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future, the baseball player Yogi Berra reportedly said. (Or was it the physicist Neils Bohr? Or Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn?)

Whoever said it, I agree – so instead of trying to forecast 2014, let’s look back at the the big stories in sustainable business from 2013, knowing that they will shape whatever lies ahead. As the US editor-at-large ofGuardian Sustainable Business, I’ll offer what is unavoidably a US-centric perspective.

My story goes on to look at five themes of the year just past:

  1. The decline in greenhouse gas emissions in the US
  2. Solar power, mainstream at last
  3. The aftermath of Rana Plaza
  4. Industrial-strength sustainability, by which I mean collaborative efforts to change entire industries or systems.
  5. Inequality, on  the political agenda

You can read the rest of the story here.

I see reason to be optimistic about all of these themes. Each offers opportunities for forward-thinking companies. That said, the challenge for business in 2014 will be to accelerate and scale its efforts to deal with the world’s big environmental and social problems. That’s one prediction I will comfortably make.

Walmart and Target, chemical cops

toxic-beauty1

Health care activists say some cosmetics made by Revlon contain cancer-causing chemicals

Cops of the global village.

That was the headline on a FORTUNE story about globalization that I wrote in 2005. I didn’t care for the headline, but it reflected one of the arguments in the story–that as US companies build global supply chains, they are exporting western health, safety and environmental standards to the global south. Governments in places like Bangladesh, India and China were doing a poor job of protecting the health, safety and human rights of  workers in garment, toy and electronics factories, so US and European brands stepped in. Companies were, in fact, acting like cops–writing laws (they called them codes of conduct) and inspecting factories to make sure they were obeyed. This system, well-intentioned as it was, has not worked very well, as we learned this year with the garment-factory disasters in Bangladesh.

Now something similar is happening right here in the US of A. Walmart and Target, the nation’s biggest and third-biggest retailer (Kroger is No. 2) have adopted policies to regulate so-called “chemicals of concern,” a term used to describe chemicals that are legal despite questions about their impact on human health. This week, Guardian Sustainable Business is running four stories that look at how and why retailers turn into regulators–an introduction by me, stories about Walmart and Target by freelance writer Bill Lascher and a contribution from John Replogle, the CEO of Seventh Generation, which calls “itself the nation’s leading brand of household and personal care products that help protect human health and the environment.”

This is, to put it mildly, a big subject, and so I won’t attempt to summarize our coverage. To give you a sense of the complexity, here is how my story begins:

Last fall, Revlon took fire from activists who alleged that the company’s cosmetics contain toxic chemicals. “Women shouldn’t have to worry about cancer when they apply their makeup,” said Shaunna Thomas of UltraViolet, a women’s group that joined forces with the Breast Cancer Fund and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to go after Revlon. “It’s deceptive to wrap yourself in pink and have these chemicals in your products.”

Revlon’s general counsel, Lauren Goldberg, shot back an indignant cease-and-desist letter, calling the charges “false and defamatory” and demanding a retraction. “Revlon has long been … at the forefront of the fight against cancer,” she wrote.

So which is it? Should women throw away their Revlon eyeliner, mascara and lip gloss? Or should they feel good about supporting a company that cares?

In a perfect world, the government would rely on sound science to regulate chemicals in personal and home care products, and consumers could safely assume that there’s no need to worry about the things they buy. No one would ever have to know about chemicals with odd-sounding names like phthalates1,4-dioxane, or triclosan – one of the chemicals that, just this week, the FDA stated it would require soap manufacturers to prove safe.

But in the real world, science can be messy and inconclusive; government regulators can be overwhelmed, indifferent or restricted by industry concerns; nonprofit groups can resort to scare tactics to attract attention or money; and manufacturers can be ignorant, careless or worse about the chemicals they put into their products. As a result of all of this, many everyday items – eyeliner and nail polish, baby bottles, household cleaners, children’s toys, even pizza boxes and antibacterial soaps – have been found, at one time or another, to contain chemicals that could make you sick.

What’s more, even as risks emerge, governments can be excruciatingly slow to respond: several European countries banned lead from interior paints in 1909 because they recognized that lead exposure can cause serious health problems in children, but the US didn’t outlaw lead house paint until the 1970s. Rich Food, Poor Food, a book written by Jayson and Mira Calton earlier this year, lists a number of foods that are banned outside of the US, but permitted within it.

All this helps explain why Walmart and Target are taking matters into their own hands.

Subsequently, Bill Lascher took a closer look–and a critical one–at the policies at both Walmart and Target. His Walmart story is headlined Walmart aims to reduce 10 toxic chemicals–but won’t divulge which and his Target story is headlined Target aims for healthier products under a veil of secrecy. As you see, one reason not to rely on retailers to become de facto regulators is that they have no obligation to explain what they are doing, or why.

I know we’ll try to keep an eye on this story as it unfolds at Guardian Sustainable Business, and we are planning a session on “chemicals of concern” at Fortune Brainstorm Green in May. If you work for a company that’s engaged in the issue, feel free to be in touch.

In a week or two, I’ll have more to say about the Fortune event. In just the past few days, we’ve booked some great speakers, and I’m excited about the program we are developing.

Peak meat: Can Al Gore, Jay Z, Oprah and Rick Warren all be wrong?

Raw-Meat-1

 

Hungry? Does this photo make you eager for dinner? Not me. I almost never cook red meat at home anymore, and I don’t miss it. I feel mildly unAmerican, having given up red meat and the NFL, but so it goes.

Turns out I’m not alone. Al Gore has gone further–he’s now a vegan. The evangelical pastor Rick Warren (who I profiled in Fortune in 2005) is advising his flock to eat less meat in a new faith-based diet book called The Daniel Plan. Jay Z and Beyonce have sworn off all animal products for three weeks.

The decline of meat is the topic of my column this week for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

What will be hot on restaurant menus in 2014? The National Restaurant Association, which surveyed more than 1,400 chefs, says the top three trends for next year will be locally sourced meats and seafood, locally grown produce and environmental sustainability. That’s welcome news for people who care about the health of the planet, but the chefs may have missed an even bigger change coming to the US diet – the decline of meat.

Today, Americans consume more meat – approximately 270lbs per capita – than carnivores elsewhere (except Luxembourg). But meat consumption in the US has been declining for nearly a decade, according to the research firm Packaged Facts. About 12% of US adults strongly agree and 19% somewhat agree that “they are eating many meatless/vegetarian meals,” says David Sprinkle, publisher of Packaged Facts. Beyond the data, there are signs all around us that meat is falling out of favor, for health, environmental, ethical and economic reasons.

The decline of meat creates opportunities for an array of competitors in the protein business. They include the developers of sustainable aquaculture, producers of vegetarian analogs like Beyond Meat andBeyond Eggs, and consumer products firms whose vegetarian products like Boca and Gardein have moved from natural foods channels to mainstream retailers like Target, Safeway and Kroger. Fast-casual chain Chipotle recently launched Sofritas, a tofu sandwich, under the headline,Vegans and Carnivores Unite, while Subway is rolling out a vegetarian falafel sandwich. On its website, Starbucks says: “If you’ve ever heard someone dismiss vegetables as “rabbit food,” you should introduce them to our Hearty Veggie & Brown Rice Salad Bowl.”

The decline of meat is welcome news. Industrially-produced meat is bad for the environment. Eating too much red meat is bad for your heart. I’m personally troubled by the way chickens, pigs and cows are treated on factory farms. Of course, it is theoretically possible to raise and slaughter animals in ways that are good for the planet and your health, as I’ve written before. I’m not a vegetarian (yet) and I can’t imagine becoming a vegan because I’m fond of cheese, butter and eggs. But I’m thinking more and more about what to cook and eat. As Jonathan Safran Foer writes in Eating Animals: “One of the greatest opportunities to live our values – or betray them – lies in the food we put on our plates.”

Hat tip to Josh Balk of the Humane Society of America, who gave me the idea for my story.

Do you want (GMO) fries with that?

 

imgresIt’s a business cliche–the customer is always right–but unlike most cliches, this one is untrue.

I realized that years ago when I was talking with a top executive at Southwest Airlines. Southwest chooses its employees carefully. They are recruited, in large part, for their good character and values, as well as their friendly personalities and desire to serve. So when an airline passenger tangles with a Southwest gate agent or flight attendant, the assumption at headquarters is that the customer is probably wrong. Those customers who are particularly unpleasant or argumentative when dealing with Southwest are politely told that they will never be permitted to fly on the airline again.

I raise this because on the subject of genetically-engineered potatoes, McDonald’s, in all likelihood, will soon find itself caught in an awkward place–between the worries of some of its customers about GMOs and the desires of an important supplier to improve the health of the potato and reduce food waste. That is the topic of today’s column for Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here’s how it begins:

“Do you want fries with that?” Not if they’re made from genetically engineered potatoes, say activists who oppose GMOs.

The advocacy group Food & Water Watch is asking McDonald’s, the world’s biggest buyer of potatoes, not to source a genetically engineered spud that was developed by its biggest supplier, the J.R. Simplot Co.

“This potato is anything but healthy,” writes Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch, in a letter (PDF) to Don Thompson, McDonald’s CEO. Altering the plant’s genes, she writes, could unintentionally affect other characteristics of the potato, “with potentially unforeseen consequences for human health”. The letter has been signed by 102,000 people.

Other NGOs, including Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety, also oppose genetically engineered food. The Consumers Unionwants that food labeled. All of them argue that US government regulation of genetically modified crops is inadequate.

This is a problem for McDonald’s – and for anyone who believes that genetic engineering has the potential to increase crop yields, help solve environmental problems or deliver healthier foods.

The interesting thing about the new potato varieties developed by the J.R. Simplot Co., an Idaho-based potato processing giant, is that they are engineered to deliver consumer and environmental benefits, as my story goes on to explain. They are designed to lower levels of acrylamide, a potential carcinogen. And they reduce black spots from bruising, which means fewer potatoes have to be thrown away. Unlike some other GMO crops, which primarily benefitted farmers (not that there’s anything wrong with that), these will benefit people who choose to eat the fries at Mickey D’s.

The GMO debate is complicated, although rarely is it presented that way. See, for example, this page on the Organic Consumer Assn. website, blasting Monsanto with ridiculous headlines like “Monsanto’s GE Seeds Pushing US Agriculture into Bankruptcy.” That will come as a surprise to USDA, which says that the US agriculture sector will enjoy record high income of  $120 billion this year. But I digress. Few people truly understand the science of biotechnology. I certainly don’t. So if we take sides, we do so based mostly based on the opinions of others who we trust. As my story says, the debate

gets emotional very quickly and often comes down to questions of trust. Here the anti-GMO forces have an advantage. They can position themselves as consumer advocates – public interest groups, if you will. By comparison, the companies that favor GMOs are seen as self-interested and lacking credibility. Government regulators also, generally, don’t inspire trust.

No wonder anti-GMO sentiments seem be growing. It’s easy for NGOs to stir up fear, and the record of government regulators–whether we’re talking about USDA, the FDA or the SEC–doesn’t inspire confidence. We should approach new GMO crops with humility and caution, particularly when considering their environmental impact. Like any technology, genetic engineering comes with risks as well as benefits.

But let’s not forget that Americans eat genetically engineered food every day, with no adverse health effects that can be attributed to GMO foods. There’s a broad consensus among mainstream scientists that the GMO crops now on the market are safe to eat.

Consumers may be fearful of GMOs, but that doesn’t make them right.