Whole Foods: Misguided about GMOs?

sfd_ctr_02_smI’m not a scientist, and I don’t pretend to be one. But where possible, I try to be guided by science in my writing.

That’s true when it comes to climate change.

That’s true, too, when it comes to genetically-modified organisms, aka GMOs.

That’s why I’m uneasy about the path-breaking policy towards GMOs announced recently by Whole Foods Market. Whole Foods is requiring that, by 2018, all products sold in its stores must carry labels if they contain GMOs. It is also  encouraging “manufacturers and producers to create products without GMO ingredients or processes and to have them verified and labeled as such.”

But why? Just as most scientists believe that climate change is real, caused by man’s activities and a big-time worry, most scientists believe that genetically-engineered foods now on the market are safe to eat and not really a concern.

Interestingly, in all of its communications around GMOs, Whole Foods makes no claims that there’s anything wrong with genetic engineering technology. It talks about transparency and consumer choice, but it can’t point to problems with GMOs…in part because products containing GMOs are everywhere in the store!

imagesThis issue became salient for me this spring when I learned about Verlasso, a salmon-farming venture co-owned by DuPont and AquaChile. [See my post, Verlasso: Farming salmon the right way.] Verlasso was explicitly developed to fix some of the environmental problems with salmon aquaculture. In particular, DuPont developed a genetically-engineered yeast, tailored to feed the salmon, which could become a substitute for the fish oil used to feed salmon on conventional farms. Catching the wild feeder fish that are ordinarily needed to supply all that oil puts pressure on marine ecosystems. Put simply, DuPont was not just trying to build a new business; it was trying to build a business that would help solve an environmental problem. But Verlasso salmon, for a variety of reasons–not just GMOs–is unlikely anytime soon to find its way into Whole Foods (which has an admirably rigorous seafood buying policy).

I’ve written a column about this that appears today in Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins: [click to continue…]

John Mackey: Hippie, libertarian, CEO

imageThe top executives of big publicly-traded US companies, in my experience, tend to be rather drab fellows (nearly all are men) who choose their words carefully, hew carefully to the middle of the road in their thinking and rarely say (or do) anything outrageous.*

Not John Mackey, the founder and co-CEO of Whole Foods Market. For better and occasionally for worse, Mackey is an original, who doesn’t run his company by any conventional management book.

Instead, he has written his own book, called Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, with co-author Raj Sisodia, an academic affiliated with Bentley University. It’s a good read, especially because of the insights it delivers into the unusual culture and practices of Whole Foods, as well as into Mackey’s own evolution.

Some examples from the book: [click to continue…]

A mycological business that’s growing strong

Midway through their final semester at UC Berkeley, Nikhil Arora and Alejandro Velez were getting ready for life in the corporate world. Despite the sluggish economy–this was the spring of 2009–they had attractive jobs lined up, Nikhil as a consultant at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Alex as a banker at Credit Suisse.

So what did they do? They chucked the job offers and began to grow mushrooms out of coffee grounds.

Alejandro Velez and Nikhil Arora

Two years later, they have no regrets. Their startup, called Back to the Roots, is literally a growth company: It sells mushroom kits that enable people to grow and harvest up to 1 1/2 lbs of gourmet oyster mushrooms in as little as 10 days, out of a cardboard box filled with used coffee grounds. Out of the box thinking, you could call it. [click to continue…]

Who’s buying renewable energy?

Here are 10 companies that are putting real dollars behind their sustainability rhetoric:

Kohl’s, Whole Foods Market, TD Bank, Swiss Re, Nordea Bank, Adobe Systems, Vestas Wind, News Corp., CLP Holdings and Deutsche Bank.

They’re leaders in buying renewable energy, according to a new report from Vestas and Bloomberg New Energy Finance called the Corporate Renewable Energy Index (CREX) 2011. It’s available for download here.

Those companies are in the top 10, the study says, when ranked by the percentage of the electricity they use that comes from renewable energy. Kohl’s and Whole Foods, for example, buy 100% of their electricity from renewable energy sources. Most companies do this by buying renewable energy certificates (RECs). Here’s a table from the report; it’s much easier to read if you click on it to enlarge it: [click to continue…]

Should Whole Foods, like Google, get out of China?

Google is exiting China for a number of reasons, including the hacking of its data, but fundamentally, Google found that it couldn’t live up to its values of openness in a repressive society. Whole Foods Market has a different China problem: The company imports lots of organic food from China, but it’s hard to know whether the state run system of agriculture and organic inspections can be trusted.

imagesThe “natural and organic” supermarket chain has been generating unwanted attention for the foods that it sources from China for at least a couple of years. The most recent bit of news is a Florida lawsuit that adds an incendiary charge–that one of Whole Foods’  big suppliers relies on forced labor. This is only an allegation, and the evidence is skimpy, to say the least, but it’s another reason that branded companies like Whole Foods had better fully understand their supply chains, wherever they may lead.

In fact, all companies would do well to think about traceability–the idea that they should  know the origins of the commodities they use. Without traceability, companies can’t be serious about sustainability. (More about that in this 2009  blogpost, Why Traceability Matters.) Patagonia, Tiffany & Co., Wal-Mart and many others are learning the value of  transparent supply chains.

Sometimes companies learn the hard way. Last week, Nestle and its Kit Kat bars came under sustained attack from Greenpeace, which charged that the global food giant “uses palm oil from companies that are trashing Indonesian rainforests, threatening the livelihoods of local people and pushing orangutans towards extinction.” This set off a major brouhaha–Nestle asked YouTube to take down a video from Greenpeace (which, of course, brought more attention), then told critics on its Facebook page not to mess around with its logo, then printed a response on its website that raised as many questions as it answers. Like most controversies, this one is complex but it appears that Nestle was doing business and still may be with a palm oil producer called Sinar Mas which is accused of leveling Indonesian rainforests to make way for palm oil plantations.

Back to Whole Foods: The Florida lawsuit, which hasn’t gotten much press,  was filed in a state court by a group called Southeast Consumer Alliance that lawyer Bruce Baldwin told me was formed, in part, to hold companies accountable through lawsuits. The suit, which is seeking class-action status, alleges that  Whole Foods violated Florida’s deceptive and unfair trade practices act by labeling as “organic” foods from China that were “the product of a venture using forced labor” and “were not properly certified under the National Organic Program (NOP).” The source for the forced labor allegation is a website run by the Falun Gong, a dissident group that opposes the Chinese government.

The allegation that foods imported from China don’t meet organic standards deserves to be taken more seriously. It’s not new: In 2008, Roberta Baskin, a reporter with an ABC-TV station in Washington ran a story questioning China’s organic standards (available here) in which she pointed out, among other things, that 365 Brand frozen “California style” vegetables are imported from China. It includes this exchange between Baskin and Linda Greer, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council:

Linda Greer: “I wouldn’t buy something organic from China with the idea that it’s truly organic.”
Baskin: “Why not?”
Greer: “The reason is we’ve had such a difficult time tracking things.”

The issue isn’t hypothetical. The TV station tested powdered ginger that was sold as organic at Whole Foods and found it contained a pesticide called Aldicarb. The company pulled the ginger off its shelves, as did others who imported the ginger.

Since then, a nonprofit that works with  Whole Foods called the Organic Crop Improvement Association International has acknowledged problems with organic certification in China. The OCIA, which calls itself “one of the world’s oldest, largest and most trusted leaders in the organic certification industry,” recently published a column by its president, Jim Robbins, who wrote:

Our operations in China continue to be troubled. One of our accreditors believes that our strategic partner in China (OFDC) has irresolvable conflicts of interest, since both OFCD and many of the farms we certify in China are both owned by the Chinese state. After wrestling with this issue for several years, the board of OCIA has decided to withdraw from China as rapidly as we can, while inconveniencing our Chinese associates as little as we can.

Whole Foods has defended organics from China, including in this long 2008 blogpost. Interestingly, it cites as a source the OCIA–the group now pulling out of China.

Here, too, is a detailed response from Whole Foods to the WJLA story, in which, Joe Dickson, the company’s organics expert, says: “Organic products from China can absolutely be certified organic to the same standard as domestic products.”

And in an email to me, Jay W. Connolly, a lawyer with Seyfarth Shaw in San Francisco, who represents Whole Foods, says the company “denies the allegations in the lawsuit, both as to the organic certification and ‘forced labor’ claims.”

The bigger question is why Whole Food–which has a significant and laudable commitment to local growers, including a $10-million loan program–needs to import food from China at all? Particularly for its frozen vegetables–couldn’t it just as easily freeze local produce? Is this a sound, sustainable practice?

I  don’t know the answers to those questions. It would take a sophisticated life-cycle analysis to understand the full impact of growing organics in China and sending them here.

In an effort to answer questions like that, Wal-Mart and its academic partners last year formed the  Sustainability Consortium, which intends to use scientific tools to measure the social and environmental impact of consumer goods. Grocery industry members include Safeway, General Mills and Kellogg, but not Whole Foods. Not yet, anyway.

P.S. Bruce Baldwin, the lawyer who brought the suit, sent me correspondence from Whole Foods in which the company says it won’t release the names of Chinese suppliers unless he agrees to keep them confidential. (He won’t.) This lack of transparency won’t help Whole Foods’ cause in the court of public opinion.