STANFORD, Calif. — Whole Foods markets are big business in this part of the world, upscale havens for rich shoppers seeking “healthy” foods. But notwithstanding their financial success, the two co-CEOs of the company are utterly clueless.
When one of them, John Mackey, gave a talk to Stanford MBA students in 2010, it was replete with airy-fairy New Age ideas. “Why should the purpose of business be to make money?” he asked. “A doctor doesn’t say his purpose is to make money, but rather to heal people. Did Bill Gates say his purpose was to make money? No, he had a vision that everyone should have a PC.” Mackey claims to have created a “conscious business” — one that is not a slave to profits but strives to serve others, change the world, and fulfill a higher purpose. If you believe that, you’re probably also convinced that Bill Gates made his billions by working in a free clinic in Harlem.
Mackey seems not to appreciate the difference between making life-saving vaccines or pacemakers — or even computer software that boosts society’s productivity — and selling overpriced groceries to the affluent and gullible. How overpriced? When I last checked out my local Whole Foods (Redwood City, Calif.), I found “Darjeeling Tea- and Ginger-Cured Smoked Salmon” for $39.96 a pound. But that was a veritable bargain compared to dried morel mushrooms priced at a whopping $1,280 a pound. (That is not a typo.) Whole Foods is widely referred to as “Whole Paycheck” — because that’s what you’ll spend shopping there.
There are more holes in Mackey’s worldview than in his stores’ insect-ravaged organic arugula. Many doctors do, in fact, enter the field to make money. Does Mackey really believe that a diet doctor, cosmetic surgeon, or aesthetic dermatologist chooses his field to “heal people”?
Now let’s turn to genius number two, Whole Foods’ co-CEO Walter Robb. Interviewed about genetically engineered foods while attending a recent conference in Beverly Hills (where else?), he said, “There hasn’t ever been a government-funded, peer-reviewed, third-party study on the long-term efficacy of [genetically modified organisms] so “the science is inconclusive at this point.” (And therefore, Whole Foods will require that all foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients — 70-80% of processed foods — be labeled as such by 2018.)
Presumably, Robb meant “safety,” rather than “efficacy”; for the reasons discussed below, even he isn’t dumb enough to question the voluminous data on genetic engineering’s usefulness and impacts. I will address both efficacy and safety.
Let’s consider “efficacy.” According to a just-released analysis by U.K.-based PG Economics, the net economic benefit from genetically engineered crops (primarily corn, cotton, canola, soy, sugar beets, and papaya) to farmers in 2011 was $19.8 billion, which translates to an average increase in income of $329/acre. For the 16-year period 1996-2011, the aggregate global farm income gain was $98.2 billion, and of that total benefit, half was due to yield gains resulting from lower pest and weed pressure and improved genetics, while the other half came from reductions in the cost of production.
What kinds of farmers benefit from genetically engineered crops? A majority (51%) of the 2011 farm income gains went to farmers in developing countries, 90% of whom are resource-poor, small operators. From 1996 to 2011, the cumulative benefits were divided about equally between farmers in developing and developed countries.