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From a handful of idealistic farmers and local co-ops in the 1960s to the domination of juggernauts like Whole Foods, the wild success of the natural and organic foods industry proves that principled business is not just possible, but profitable. With nearly unfettered double-digit annual growth, the development of this now-$88 billion industry is one of the most remarkable untold stories in American business history. Trailblazers like Mo Siegel of Celestial Seasonings, Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms, and John Mackey of Whole Foods openly challenged the interests of Big American Agribusiness, transformed food manufacturing and retailing, and re-wrote the playbook for small entrepreneurs.
Dobrow, a 20-year veteran of the natural foods industry who had a front row seat (and backstage pass) to much of the upheaval and expansion he describes, characterizes the radical vision of these "natural prophets" as one part anti-industrial activism, one part bold opportunism, and one part new-era marketing genius. The triple bottom line—people, planet, profit—emerged as a major new lodestone for successful, values-based business practices.
Natural Prophets is a fascinating narrative account of these upstart Davids—their failures and their unprecedented successes—that distills lessons about management, marketing, and entrepreneurial growth, and offers a lively, urgent profile of an industry that continues to change the way we eat, the way we live, and the way we think about ourselves.
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THE MILKMAN OR THE COW
This morning, hundreds of thousands of people sat down to a bowl of Post Honey Bunches of Oats cereal. Maybe even you. It is, after all, one of the most popular breakfast cereals in America, second in sales only to Honey Nut Cheerios. Perhaps you chose the Tropical Blend Mango Coconut flavor in the orange-and-turquoise box with the palm trees on it. Or the one that reassuringly includes "real strawberries."
The Post brand dates back to the late 19th century, and is legendary in the cereal business. A farm-implement-manufacturer-turned-real-estate-developer named Charles William (C.W.) Post founded the company after a stay at the Battle Creek Sanitarium run by John Harvey Kellogg, in an attempt to get his nervous and digestive issues under control. Post was impressed by the dietary products he sampled at Battle Creek, and in 1895 launched a product of his own, a "cereal beverage" called Postum. It was pitched to consumers as a caffeine-free alternative to coffee. A 1903 advertisement made the straightforward case: "Coffee causes Heart-Failure, Dyspepsia, Brain-Fag and Nervous-Prostration. These will leave you when you use Postum Food Coffee."1
In 1897 Post came out with a new cereal product called Grape Nuts, and in 1904 with a corn flake cereal originally called Elijah's Manna, prudently renamed in 1908 as Post Toasties. In later years, as the company evolved and became known as General Foods, there would be many more storied cereal products: 40% Bran Flakes, Raisin Bran, Alpha-Bits, Spoon-Sized Shredded Wheat, Honeycomb, and in 1971 the immortal Fruity Pebbles.
In fact, one could look at the Post portfolio of cereal products and brands and trace nearly the entire history of the modern American health foods industry through their advertising—from brain-fag to Euell Gibbons to Fred Flintstone. And back: Starting in 2004, Post reduced the amount of sugar in some of their popular cereals, and in 2011 their new packaging boldly trumpeted the gluten-free version of Fruity Pebbles. Yabba dabba don't.
Honey Bunches of Oats was launched in 1989-1990, around the same time that General Foods was being married to Kraft by parent company Philip Morris, creating a $30 billion, 55,000-employee colossus that C.W. Post could never have imagined. The cereal's current ingredient list reflects some of the tempering effects that the healthy foods revolution has had on the cereal industry, but also the extent to which a multitude of inputs (in this case, at least 30) still define our highly processed world: corn, whole grain wheat, sugar, whole grain rolled oats, brown sugar, rice, high oleic vegetable oil (canola or sunflower oil), wheat flour, malted barley flour, salt, corn syrup, whey (from milk), honey, malted corn and barley syrup, caramel color, natural and artificial flavor, annatto extract (color), and BHT [butylated hydroxytoluene] added to the packaging. There are also added vitamins and minerals, including reduced iron, niacinamide, vitamin B6, vitamin A palmitate, riboflavin (vitamin B2), thiamin mononitrate (vitamin B1), zinc oxide, folic acid, vitamin B12, and vitamin D.
The Post Toasties your grandparents may have eaten--admittedly before labeling laws had been enacted to require full disclosure, but also before modern-day innovations like code dates, fortification, and Recommended Daily Allowances brought a flurry of new ingredients to each box—bore this simple statement on the front of the package: "Made from corn grits, sugar and salt."
And what about the milk with your Honey Bunches of Oats? You might have added some 2 percent milk from your local dairy (which is probably a few hundred miles distant). Or perhaps some raw milk, or Silk soy milk, or calcium-enriched whole milk Lactaid, or maybe even Organic Valley fat-free organic milk fortified with omega-3 fatty acids sustainably sourced from wild ocean fish. Your grandparents' milk? It likely came from the milkman—probably with cream on top—or from the cow.
In just one or two short generations, food production and procurement have been completely transformed in nearly every corner of the world. Natural and organic foods, once the norm, have given way to synthetic and chemical foods so thoroughly, so absolutely, that we have all but forgotten how things used to be. Only through the heroic efforts of a small group of entrepreneurs in recent years have we begun to turn back the tide of artificiality and to rediscover the foods, processes, and principles that our forebears would have recognized.
The fact is that from the time Homo sapiens first appeared on the planet at least 200,000 years ago up until nearly the present day, all of the food we ate was "organic," which is to say: as it was found in nature, with the only modifications coming from preparation (separating, cutting) or from the alchemy of ingredients and creative genius we think of as "cooking." But the raw elements? They were pure and natural for roughly the first 199,900 of those years. Whether it was big game meat scavenged by the Neanderthals, shoots and grains carefully cultivated by our Mesolithic forebears, a bechamel sauce prepared in the court of the Sun King during the late 17th century, or the box of Post Toasties in your grandmothers pantry, all food was taken as a gift more or less straight from nature. Chemicals never factored into the equation. There was no equation at all.
Since about the time of World War II, however, Homo sapiens has become incredibly . . . sapient. And we have shifted almost in toto to a diet of chemically treated crops and animal proteins, and highly processed foods with lengthy polysyllabic ingredients lists. Some 80,000 new chemical com£ds have been introduced in the United States in that time,2 many of which are used in the production, packaging, and storage of food. In particular, chemicals are used as pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers on 930 million acres in the United States, or roughly 96 percent of the farmland, and on 3.8 billion acres globally.3
Among the class of pesticides alone, US farmers use an estimated 5.6 billion £ds per year, a tenfold increase since World War II, in part because evolutionary forces keep fighting back: There are now hundreds of pesticide-resistant insects, whose biology has proven to be more potent than the chemical cocktails we feed them. A 2004 study also showed the existence of 286 herbicide-resistant weeds. Despite the epic battle fought with these tens of thousands of chemicals, crop losses due to pest and weed damage have nearly doubled since World War II, and now amount to about 37 percent of the total grown.4
The ingenious laboratory work of companies like Dow Chemical, DuPont, Monsanto, and American Cyanamid has brought enormous benefits to farms, economies, and, arguably, the human race. Farm productivity has increased beyond all mathematical reason. Farmers are able to plant more densely, extend the growing season, yield more food per acre, and reduce their labor costs. Chemicals have also helped agronomy advance in the developing world to the point at which some soil-poor nations are now better able to feed their starving masses.
But there has also been an almost unfathomable cost. For after the lid of Pandora's pesticide box was flipped open, some residue remained inside. Because some of these chemicals are fat-soluble, they can penetrate the cells of the plants on which they are applied, and can "bio-accumulate" into each successive member of the food chain that consumes the plants. Many other chemicals enter our bodies through the environment, such as the common herbicide Atrazine—also known as 2-chloro-4-(ethylamino)-6-(isopropylamino)-s-triazine—which, according to the New York Times, "has become among the most common contaminants in American reservoirs and other sources of drinking water."5 Thus, almost every single person in the country now has traces of pesticides in the blood; most newborns have at least 232 chemicals in their bodies.6 Indeed, it is estimated that the average American now consumes about 9 pounds of chemical additives each year.7 Many of these compounds have been linked to brain and lung damage, cancer, developmental disabilities, and a host of other diseases, conditions, and afflictions.8
But that is the only the start of our chemical dependency. Here in the 21st century, nearly 70 years after the synthetic revolution began, the transformations in our food are not just molecular, but genetic and societal, too.
First, consider the genetic level. With Daedalian ingenuity, and what critics would say is hubristic indifference, scientists in the postwar period discovered that DNA could be transferred between two different organisms, thus opening up the possibility that the genetic makeup of foodstuffs could be engineered to breed for desirable characteristics. There were some experiments with antibiotic-resistant tobacco plants in the 1980s. Then scientists at a company called Calgene developed a tomato whose ripening process was slowed down by adding a gene from the E. coli bacterium that interfered with the normal production of an enzyme responsible for breaking down pectin in the cell walls. The effect would be to make a tomato that was resistant to rotting, and which could theoretically be allowed to remain on the vine longer than most tomatoes (which are typically picked when under-ripe and then allowed to ripen in transit or with the addition of ethylene gas). This test-tube tomato was called CGN-89564-2, but was better known as the Flavr Savr—the first commercially produced "genetically modified organism," or GMO. With the approval of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), it was born on May 18, 1994.
It turned out that vowels were not the only thing missing from the Flavr Savr. The fruits were smaller than most other tomatoes, the yield per acre was terrible, and the product ultimately had to be cross-bred to achieve a better flavor. Calgene was eventually sold to Monsanto.
But CGN-89564-2 unleashed a torrent of additional interest, research, and development in genetic food engineering that would remake the food landscape forever. Crops could now be engineered that were drought resistant, or that had greater rigidity to enable denser planting, or that could minimize the need for excessive application of pesticides and herbicides. Soon, genes from the flounder were being bred into certain tomato crops to make them more resistant to frost; the company Ventria Bioscience even used genes found in human saliva and breast milk to engineer a type of rice they said could be useful in treating children with diarrhea.
Today, a mere 20 years later, an estimated 91 percent of all soybeans, 85 percent of all corn, and 88 percent of all cotton grown in the United States comes from genetically modified seeds. Monsanto alone controls 90 percent of US soybean production and 60 percent of US corn through patented seeds that, because they must be repurchased every year instead of being allowed to regenerate, have in turn remade the whole economics of the agricultural system.
Second, there is the societal level—for the gains made in productivity on the farm in the chemical era set off a chain reaction that ultimately toppled some unintended dominos.
As Michael Pollan illustrated so dramatically in The Omnivore's Dilemma, chemical innovations led to greater productivity from cornfields. More corn produced meant more need to find uses for corn. One such use was as livestock feed. Only about 10 percent of the world's grain in 1900 went to feed livestock, but that number doubled by 1950, doubled again by the late 1990s, and has now surpassed 60 percent in the United States. Cattle came off the range and into dense feedlots, concentrated animal feeding operations, or "CAFOs" in industry parlance, that produced a surge in the supply of beef, which in turn generated a change in the American diet—from per capita consumption of about 112 £ds in 1909 to about 271 pounds by the mid-2000s, when it peaked.9 Additionally, fewer cattle on the range meant fewer small family farms (down by more than 300,000 since 1979), and the absence of cattle on mixed-use farms meant less manure, which meant more need for synthetic fertilizers.10 Single-use "monoculture" farms became the rule, and biodiversity suffered.
Another use for the corn surplus was as a sweetener: high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), introduced in 1980. Cheap to produce (one bushel of corn yields 33 pounds of HFCS), and just as sweet as sugar, HFCS quickly became a staple of the American diet. By 1984 it had replaced cane sugar in the sacrosanct recipes of both Coke and Pepsi. By 2012, the average person was consuming almost 55 pounds a year of HFCS without any corresponding decrease in sugar consumption, in turn contributing significantly to a surge in adult type-2 diabetes and the current epidemic of obesity.11
Hence, because of a dotted line extending straight back to the emergence of chemical agriculture, our diets today bear little resemblance to those of earlier generations. Early humans got 65 percent of their calories through fruits and vegetables; modern Man derives only 7 percent of calories from the combination of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Instead, 51 percent of our food energy comes through processed foods.
So in the span of one or two human lifetimes—a mere heartbeat, evolutionarily speaking—we have gone from a world of authentic to synthetic, from connate to construct, from pure to processed. Post Toasties are gone; postmodern—as surely evidenced by Fruity Pebbles made from red 40, yellow 6, yellow 5, blue 1, blue 2, artificial flavors, genetically modified soy lecithin, and high-fructose corn syrup--is at hand.
Skull-and-crossbones-laden chemical concoctions used to stimulate agricultural abundance . . . unpronounceable ingredients in our food . . . food products that are neither local nor possibly even terrestrial . . . Faustian trade-offs made to get it all. . . . None of this would have been at all comprehensible to our grandparents or great-grandparents. Yet, the water slowly heating to a boil around us, we seem not to have noticed the change.
How in the world did we get here?
In the United States and most of the developed world, natural food was the norm even well into our accessible history. In the early 20th century, America was still a predominantly rural country where most of the food was grown on small farms that operated in much the same way they had since agriculture was invented 12,000 years earlier. Fertilizer, for example, came mostly from the manure of livestock, guano, crop residues, and the application of natural elements such as potash, phosphorus, and nitrates.12 Livestock were still being raised on untreated feed and pastureland; the regular use of antibiotics and growth hormones as feed supplements was still years away. Weeds were controlled primarily through mechanical methods (hoeing, tilling, flooding, burning, etc), or through "cropping" or biological means, such as the introduction of parasites;13 salt, ashes, and a few compounds like sodium nitrate or calcium cyanamide were being used selectively, but chemical weed control was still in its infancy.14
Table of Contents
Prologue: The Tipping Point vii
Chapter 1 The Milkman or the Cow 1
Chapter 2 A Few Gnarly Pieces of Fruit 25
Chapter 3 The Rise of the High-Minded Idealists 46
Chapter 4 The Boulder Mafia 81
Chapter 5 Spontaneous Combustion 109
Chapter 6 Land of Opportunism 141
Chapter 7 Cult of Competition 177
Chapter 8 Dueling Business Models 208
Chapter 9 From Co-Op to Co-Optation to Clout 240