Would you buy food from morons? (If not, don’t go to Whole Foods.)

Henry Miller Senior Fellow, Pacific Research Institute.
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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.

According to the PG Economics analysis (as well as many others), genetically engineered crops have offered important benefits in addition to improvements to farmers’ bottom lines.

First, because of increases in yields, their use has obviated the need to cultivate vast additional amounts of arable land.

Second, genetically engineered crops have reduced significantly the release of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural practices. The reductions result from less fuel use and greater soil carbon sequestration from less tillage with the cultivation of genetically engineered crops, as compared to conventional varieties.

Third, between 1996 and 2011, the cultivation of pest-resistant genetically engineered crops reduced pesticide spraying by 474 million kilograms (a decrease of 9%).

Are genetically engineered products safe? There is a quarter-century-long consensus in the scientific community that the newer techniques of genetic engineering are essentially an extension, or refinement, of earlier methods for genetic improvement. As long ago as 1989, a National Research Council analysis concluded, “Crops modified by molecular and cellular methods should pose risks no different from those modified by classical genetic methods for similar traits. As the molecular methods are more specific, users of these methods will be more certain about the traits they introduce into the plants.”

Even the notoriously risk-averse FDA “is not aware of any information showing that foods derived by these new methods (plant biotechnology) differ from other foods in any meaningful or uniform way, or that, as a class, foods developed by the new techniques present different or greater safety concern than foods developed by traditional plant breeding.” For that reason, the FDA does not discriminate against genetic engineering techniques; rather, the degree of regulatory scrutiny (and the need for information on labels) depends on factors related to risk, such as whether a new food contains a substance completely new to the food supply or has higher levels of an endogenous toxin.

Skeptics who remonstrate that genetically engineered foods have not been proven safe for human consumption are rebutted by the fact that to ensure their safety, all genetically engineered crops are extensively tested for toxins, allergens, and nutritional value before being marketed. In fact, as a group, they are the most-tested food products sold today. Conventionally bred new varieties of crops, in contrast, undergo no systematic testing for safety or nutritional value.

Antagonists of genetic engineering like Robb frequently cite the absence of long-term human feeding studies of genetically engineered plants, but that is a non-issue. The safety of any new genetically engineered crop is carefully tested in the laboratory, in the field, and in animals. It is impossible to design a meaningful long-term feeding test in humans, however, because it would require the intake of large amounts of a particular genetically engineered food or ingredient over a significant portion of the human life span. Who would be willing to consume, for decades, a fully standardized diet (essential for comparing groups and isolating the effects of the food under study) that is, for example, 30 percent soybeans, corn, or papaya?

There is simply no practical way to learn anything from human studies of whole foods, which is why no existing food or food ingredient — conventionally produced or genetically engineered — has been subjected to this type of testing. Academic toxicologists and food safety officials around the world agree that long-term feeding tests in humans are not only virtually impossible to perform but are not necessary to establish safety.

Since 1996, there has also been an outpouring of scientific evidence and published peer-reviewed risk-assessment research (much of it government-funded) that provides strong evidence in support of the safety of genetically engineered crops and the foods made from them. During those 16 years, there has been no credible scientific evidence that genetically engineered foods or ingredients cause allergies or other acute problems or that they have any negative long-term health effects. Several trillion meals containing genetically engineered food ingredients have been consumed by people around the world, and not a single adverse effect has been documented.

If Mackey and Robb really wanted to inform their customers about which food products were derived from genetically altered organisms, the labels would need to be on everything made from plants, animals, or microorganisms, with the exception of wild game, wild mushrooms, wild berries, and fish and shellfish. (Yes, even the organic and “heirloom” stuff.) And what, pray tell, would that accomplish?

Mackey and Robb may “talk the talk” about adhering to high ethical standards, but they perform a profound disservice by opposing technology that can reduce the need to spray chemical pesticides, reduce soil erosion and the release of CO2 into the atmosphere, conserve water and farmland, alleviate famine and vitamin-deficiency diseases for millions, and even lead to the development of edible vaccines incorporated into fruits and vegetables. In other words, genetic engineering is an important tool for moving toward greater sustainability in agriculture and for improving the human condition.

Could these two co-CEOs really be that ignorant? Or is it just that genetic engineering isn’t politically correct among some of their constituencies and social circles?

Henry I. Miller, a physician, is the Robert Wesson Fellow in Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He was the founding director of the FDA’s Office of Biotechnology. Barron’s selected his most recent book, “The Frankenfood Myth,” one of the 25 best books of 2004.