The Trouble with Whole Foods

July 2, 2018

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As a general rule, I try not to spend too much time litigating the absolute perfect way to farm. The most practical reason for this is a healthy dose of humility - the lesson this work has most often taught me is that what I think is a great idea right now may look very different in a year’s time. I also try to extend this attitude to other small farms. Even when I see what looks to me like a hyperbolic or ill-defined claim, I don’t assume that it means the owners are willfully deceptive. Agriculture is complicated and messy, and we’re all trying to figure out the best way to talk about what we do and why we do it, even as we work those things out for ourselves. But lately I’ve been having a hard time maintaining this sort of equanimity when I visit Whole Foods.

In the past I’ve been ambivalent about criticizing it too emphatically because, for all its flaws, it does a lot to encourage people to think about the connection between foods choices, animal welfare, and the environment. In some cases it also helps farms find a way to sell niche products that otherwise might be impossible to market. But these days it more and more looks like a veneer, a pastoral image that has only a tenuous connection to the actual products being sold.

The last time I compared the pork prices in their butcher case were right in line with ours, despite the fact that it was meat from factory farmed hogs. For all my uncertainty about the ideal agricultural system, I’m confident that meat from our pigs, raised by us in small groups on pasture, fed local grain, and processed at a small slaughterhouse, is in every way superior to this. In fact, Whole Foods pork has a lot more in common - and is likely identical to - the stuff selling for less than half the price at your local regular supermarket. The same could be said about Whole Foods’ conventional “local” beef, and imported grass-fed beef and lamb.

What those extra dollars are buying is a feeling that the product is superior in a holistic way, that its production has been managed with an effort to account for larger social and ecological impacts. This is inevitable, to an extent, since most people don’t have time to do a forensic investigation of the provenance of each bite of food they eat. I don’t know how to make sure there is a real connection between marketing claims and on the ground practices, but there needs to be one. Otherwise more and more of alternative agriculture will follow Whole Foods in selling lucrative stories with no actual change.

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