I went to whole foods a few days ago for only the second time in my life. Having been a vegetarian for over a decade and recently switching to being vegan, a store like Whole Foods makes grocery shopping tremendously easier. However, after scanning the aisles and realizing exactly what “whole” meant to this company and its customers, I cannot bring myself to support their movement. Whole Foods and the movement that has fueled it makes me cringe with its lack of evidence and appeal to sensationalism. Claiming environmental awareness, sustainable agriculture, and healthier foods, Whole Foods fails to support these principles with its selection. From high prices and bad science of organic farming to the sale of meat, every step I took in that store was one step closer to never going back.
Prices for consumables often dictates the efficiency of producing that product. High prices usually mean less efficient practices while low prices usually indicate higher efficiency. For example, blueberries in mid-winter are expensive because of the high transportation costs. However, we would be naïve to think we the sole bearer of this cost; the bulk of the impact lies on the environment. High prices at any market are usually indicator of the cost of production, and is traditionally directly proportional to the environmental impact. This is contradictory to any organic agriculture campaign touting reduced environmental impact with extraordinarily high prices. With estimates of organic agriculture’s global capacity at a measly four billion people, the inefficiency is without a doubt present. Organic agriculture traditionally has higher cost, reflecting its lower yields. Per hectare, organic farming produces twenty-five percent less food than traditional farming (1). This leads to increased encroachment on protected land and destruction of more forests to account for the reduced efficiency. In the end, the organic crowd ignores this reality and instead preaches the benefits of organic farming.
However, the organic movement has very little evidence for its benefits. Organic supporters often cite that their produce tastes better or is healthier despite the overwhelming research demonstrating that traditionally farmed agriculture not only tastes the same if not better, but also often has higher nutrient density (2,3,4). Additionally, organic produce, in avoiding modern forms of pest management and disease control, often becomes a vector for pathogens(2,5). Advancements in modern agriculture have not only led to increased efficiency of agriculture, but have also led to increases in food safety, flavor, and health globally. Even Whole Foods acknowledges the deficit of evidence supporting health benefits of organic farming. Why would we want to abandon the evidence based, rigorously tested methods of modern agriculture for unfounded claims?
With taking away organic agriculture as a feasible method to prevent environmental destruction and boost health, it may seem that these efforts are fruitless. However, there is a very simple, incredibly easy, evidence based way to reduce our impact on the environment and decrease our risk for heart disease, obesity, and several types of cancer: don’t eat meat(6). And this is where Whole Foods once again fails its principles. With an enormous seafood, meat, and poultry section, Whole Foods completely ignores this simple and effective method. Ecological efficiency describes the energy transfer from one trophic level to the next. “Edible kilocalories produced from kilocalories of energy required for cultivation are: 18.1% for chicken, 6.7% for grass-fed beef, 5.7% for farmed salmon, and 0.9% for shrimp. In contrast, potatoes yield 123%, corn produce 250%, and soy results in 415% of input calories converted to calories able to be utilized by humans. This disparity in efficiency reflects the reduction in production from moving up trophic levels. Thus, it is more energetically efficient to form a diet from lower trophic levels,”(7,8). With the absurd disparities between a vegetarian diet and omnivorous diet, it would seem obvious to anyone wanting to cut his environmental impact that switching to a vegetarian diet would have the greatest impact. There is a practice in the sport of collegiate triathlon that nearly all students follow. We research which purchases will help us go the fastest for the lowest cost and buy those items first. No self-respecting financially tied triathlete would buy a disc wheel before buying an aero helmet, or an aero helmet before buying bike shoes. The reality is that an omnivorous environmentalist is hypocritical. Anyone who claims environmental concern while simultaneously consuming, or in Whole Foods case, selling meat, immediately loses my attention.
In the end, what these debates all come down to is the fallacious appeal to nature, a faith-based argument, lacking in evidence and appealing to sensationalism. The “Whole Foods” movement is more a cult/religion than an actual environmental or moral crusade. In reality, the greatest advancements in environmentalism, health, and sustainable agriculture are modern agriculture, genetically modified foods, and vegetarianism. If the consumers want these things, and not just an upper class market for guilty consciences, then they’ll stop buying meat, start buying the cheapest produce available, and avoid novelty foods.
Postscript: here’s why antibiotics are the best thing that happened to livestock next to not having livestock in the first place.