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Paul Hawken Says Whole Foods Dismantles Local Food Webs

Despite sentiments like those expressed in the company's recent press release celebrating "25 years of supporting local agriculture," long time author and organic enterpreneur Paul Hawken believes Whole Foods Market puts a variety of local natural foods providers out of business. This from an interview from February 2004 in Grist Magazine.

Whole Foods dismantles local food webs and doesn't foster what the organic movement is about. The organic and natural-food movement that I helped kick off in the late '60s was the beginning of recreating regional food webs. Local stores started all around the country and they began to source locally, and whatever they couldn't get locally they got regionally, and whatever they couldn't get regionally they got nationally. In terms of produce and bakery goods and other food items, there was a huge diversity of suppliers in the United States because there was a huge diversity of stores. Whole Foods went in and bought out the bigger, more successful stores and then rebranded them and did centralized purchasing for produce, which now comes from Chile and New Zealand and places like that. In the process, many local organic producers went out of business. Massive scale and centralization of power and capital is the antithesis of what we had in mind when we started the natural and organic-food business in the U.S.

Q: But does that totally discredit the positive things they are doing?

A: Good deeds don't erase bad outcomes. But let's talk about the positive things they are doing.

Q: Well, let's say they use recycled packaging and keep pesticides out of the soil. Isn't large-scale organic farming better than non-organic factory farms?

A: Yes, but still it's large-scale agribusiness.

Q: But they're better than Safeway.

A: They are guided by profit. So are small companies. So far so good. But when a company gets large and dominant, the same instincts to survive and prosper can become unintentionally harmful. The natural-food movement is being bought up by Phillip Morris and H.J. Heinz and Jimmy Dean. That dog won't hunt. It leads to a lowering of standards, and emphasis on price as opposed to cost. It leads to uniformity, power, concentration, and control. Luckily, there's a slow food movement in the U.S. and lots of things happening that counter that.