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August 26, 2008

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Eddie Gehman Kohan

Maybe you shouldn't feel so bad about missing Slow Food Nation. Whole Foods is sponsoring it, which turns the entire project into one big commercial for Whole Foods. Why is this unfortunate? Whole Foods as a corporation repeatedly behaves in a criminal manner that is absolutely antithetical to the Slow philosophy of "good, clean, fair" food for all, produced locally and with an eye to heritage foods. Whole Foods hates unions and has been invovled in smashing producer workers' efforts to organize, they import far more products than they buy from local farmers and food artisans, they've repeatedly been busted for re-labeling conventionally grown produce as organic, they're being sued by the US government for trustbusting issues regarding their demolition of Wild Oats markets, they're being sued by the state of California for having carcinogens in their body care products, they're being sued by private parties for E coli poisonings related not only to their current beef recall but also to tainted milk. Any idea what percentage of their coffee is really fair trade and organic? It's less than thirty percent. They're just another very big player in the food industrial complex, patronizing big ag and misleading consumers, all in the name of green. It's a sad day when what's supposed to be a celebration of local and Slow turns into an advert for the kind of corporate behaviors that are leading to all kinds of food supply problems in America and around the world. Many coffee makers have really turned themselves around to become sustainable and fair and organic, but Whole Foods wants nothing to do with them. Eat a nice local dinner you've cooked at home with foodstuffs from your own area, and you'll be effecting far more change in the world than attending Slow Food Nation would ever do. Plus you'll be saving loads of money, because the Slow Nation tickets have been repeatedly blasted for being wildly expensive.

Daniel Humphries

Thanks for the comments, Eddie.

I know a lot of people are feeling mixed feelings about Whole Foods' involvement with this event. It definitely makes it seem like some people are missing the sustainability forest for the "gourmet" trees, if I can strain a metaphor.

I don't feel well-informed enough to have an opinion one way or the other. I certainly understand that big events need big sponsors. In general, despite what you say here, it seems Whole Foods isn't any worse or better than other large food companies. But I gather that's your point: they paint themselves "green" and trick people into thinking they're making some kind of holy-holistic choice by shopping there.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how one safely gets involved with the big boys. Here in New York City we have an organization and traders that represent HUGE corporations (much bigger than Whole Foods) that buy and sell 90% of the coffee (or more) that Americans drink. As someone who believes in quality coffee and living wages for producers, do I pretend they don't exist? Do I get on my high and mighty soapbox and sneer at them? Do I try to engage them at the risk of getting dirty? I don't have answers... these are rhetorical questions.

In any case, I don't think the sponsorship by Whole Foods makes Slow Food Nation a worthless event. I still wish I was going. But I think it's worth debating, and certainly worth pointing out.

Incidentally, "Fair Trade" and "Organic" certified coffees are one good way to attack the sustainability problem in the coffee trade, but certainly not the only way. Almost every single pound of coffee grown in Ethiopia, for example, is done totally organically, as it always has been. But almost none of it is certified. Certification is expensive and complicated. Ditto "Fair Trade." And even if WF wanted to buy 100% certified coffees, it's very difficult. There's not nearly enough certified Fair Trade and Organic coffee to fill more than a couple percentage points of world consumption. Having 30% is actually pretty impressive. This is the same predicament Starbucks is in, believe it or not. They buy HUGE amounts of Fair Trade coffee and they are way more active on this front than anyone else, but they still end up filling only a fraction of their total demand this way and then people accuse them of somehow being the bad guys or "tricking" their consumers. Again, I don't know anything about the rest of Whole Foods practices... but I do know a bit about coffee ;)

Thanks again for the thoughtful comment!

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