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JOHN: The United States agricultural system is based upon the industrial model. It has adopted industrial techniques to maximize efficiency and productivity of agricultural production, which are the only values that are recognized within this particular system. If chemical fertilizers and pesticides increase productivity and lower costs, they are therefore "good". I'm not going to argue here or anywhere that increasing productivity and lowering costs are bad things in themselves. Producing food at lower costs is obviously a good thing. However, that is not the whole story here. There are other values in food production that are not recognized or valued in the industrial model. Some of these values include: the long-term health and fertility of the soil, the nutritional value and "life force value" of the food produced, the long-term sustainability of agriculture, the long-term effects on our health from small, but continual inputs of synthetic pesticides, the health and well-being of the farm workers, the purity and quality of our ground water, the health and well being of our livestock animals, and many other values. These other values are not seen or recognized in the price of the food produced under the industrial agricultural model. There is an information failure going on here. Many people intuitively recognize that organic agriculture partially corrects some of the flaws of the industrial system, even if they are not able to articulate well their reservations with the industrial model.
Defenders of the industrial agricultural model usually accuse organic proponents of being anti-scientific, irrational, against progress, etc. They seem to see themselves as Galileo standing against the Inquisition! I'm personally very pro-science and I'm happy to let science decide some of the arguments between the proponents of the industrial agricultural model and the organic agricultural model. Science is the best way we have to discover the truth. However, it is very important to realize that scientific knowledge often lags intuitive, experiential knowledge -- sometimes by many decades.
Let me give you just two examples on this: 1. Cigarettes. It took several decades for scientific knowledge to catch up to what the average person intuitively knew -- cigarettes are deadly and will eventually kill you. 2. Mad cow disease -- science initially said that the rendering process eliminated any risk of danger to livestock animals from eating the dead remains of other animals. However, intuition and common sense tell us that feeding ruminant animals (vegetarians) the dead remains of other livestock animals might have potentially unforeseen negative consequences. Turns out it did, and it's possible that millions of people have been exposed to mad cow disease this way. Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia have very similar symptoms to mad cow disease.
I believe that over the long term -- within my lifetime -- many and perhaps most of the claims that proponents of organic agricultural make will be vindicated by scientific research -- research which is now in either its very early stages or currently lacks the scientific methodologies to determine, such as the life force value or "chi" of various foods. Other claims that are intuitively obvious to me and many others will likely be proven, however. I fully expect science to show the importance of the connection between soil fertility and nutritional value of food. I expect science will eventually verify that organic foods are more nutritious, that continual inputs of low-grade synthetic pesticides have negative long-term health consequences, that eating factory farm livestock animals does not support long-term health and longevity, that farm workers at organic farms outlive farm workers at industrial farms, that pesticide runoff, and waste waters from livestock factory farms have deadly negative impacts on the water quality and the local ecosystems, etc. Consider the last one already scientifically proven. Livestock factory farms are environmental disasters.
Some of the criticisms of the industrial agricultural model will not be resolved by science. These are ethical criticisms. The best example is what we are doing to our livestock animals on the industrial factory farms. In the United States alone we slaughter over 10 billion livestock animals for food every single year! The great majority of these animals are raised in incredibly inhumane ways because this type of treatment maximizes productivity and lowers costs, and thus lowers costs to the consumer. But what about the animals? Do they count for nothing? Is it ethically right for a chicken or a pig to live its entire life in a very small cage, never seeing the sun or getting outdoors? I don't think it is right -- no matter how high the productivity is. Productivity and lower costs are not the only values that matter to me and to most other people.
In general, my answer is to let the market decide some of these questions. If people want to buy organic foods because they believe they are better for their personal health and better for the environment then they should have the right to do so. Whole Foods isn't seeking to make the industrial agricultural model illegal, but we do believe that there are millions of people who prefer the organic model for numerous reasons. We exist to fulfill those needs and desires of our customers. At the end of the day it isn't Whole Foods' duty and responsibility to prove anything about organic methods of agriculture. We're retailers and we exist to serve our customers to the best of our ability. Let the marketplace decide consumer preferences and let science continue to do its research to answer the unanswered questions.
SUNNI: A lot of food for thought there, John. What's your view of genetically modifying foods, both plant and animal? It seems to me that some opponents are overstating its potential danger, since many of our now-essential foods are the result of much more primitive genetic engineering -- going back thousands of years, sometimes.
JOHN: Another very complex question, Sunni. You're asking me the most difficult and complex questions that I have ever been asked in any interview before.
SUNNI: Thank you, John -- I take that as a high compliment!
JOHN: There are no simple answers to these questions. Just a few points here.
I disagree with the argument that the type of genetic engineering that is going on today is qualitatively the same as the evolution of various species through selective breeding in the past. Selective breeding always had built-in biological safeguards. There was always a certain kind of biological integrity to the species (the species barrier) that limited the ability to alter it. Genetic engineering changes this. Scientists are now able to combine genes from completely different species together with unforeseen, unknown, and unintended consequences. The risks definitely escalate now that the species barrier has been breached.
Should genetic engineering be illegal or banned? Many think so. I do not. However, there are serious ethical issues with genetic engineering that can't simply be dismissed as "anti-scientific" or "neo-Luddite". I don't believe we can allow just anything to go here. However, a detailed discussion is simply beyond the scope of this interview.
SUNNI: Sure; I understand that.
JOHN: Whole Foods has had a very consistent position on genetically engineered foods. Label them. Consumers, whether rightly or wrongly, are very concerned about GMOs. Don't they have the right to know whether they are eating them or not? We think they do and we support mandatory labeling so that consumers can make informed choices in the marketplace.