The year the switch was flipped. That year was 1994, when Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa, the invasion of Haiti was orchestrated by the Clintons, the Rwanda genocide murdered 800,000 people while Bill Clinton was informed daily yet did nothing to stop it, John F. Kennedy Jr. sent a letter to then Senator Joe Biden calling him a traitor, UNAIDS was founded as well as the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, and cloning research was getting its kick-off in Argentina. Yes, 1994 was indeed a pivotal year, but that’s not all that happened that year.
On July 5, 1994 Jeff Bezos launched Amazon, while the Flavr Savr tomato saw its debut after a stamp of approval for the first commercial sale of genetically modified foods (GMOs). It was quite an exciting year for Whole Foods as well. Founded in 1980 by John Mackey, Mark Skiles, Renee Lawson Hardy, and Craig Weller, with their merger of Safer Way Natural Foods and Clarksville Natural Grocery, they decided to expand out of Austin, TX into Houston after seizing opportunity of growth through mergers and acquisitions. By 1992, Whole Foods was becoming a superstar and took their company public with opening shares at $1.06. Things were rockin’ and rollin’, and by November 29, 1993 they saw their first stock split. 1994 was looking good for everyone in this group.
By 1998, Fortune magazine was shining a spotlight on Whole Foods, and what started out as a small local grocer with a staff of 19, had emerged into a super expanding wonder. In 1999, they partnered with Marine Stewardship Council, founded in London in 1997, for more sustainable seafood choices of wild-caught fish. By 2001 they had chosen New York as one of their newest locations, and in 2002 launched their 365 Organic Everyday Value brand, becoming the first national commodity-priced, all organic product line in the United States. Incredible!
Meanwhile, the Flavr Savr tomato was an epic fail for the first ever genetically modified food designed and approved for human consumption. But that didn’t stop the desires of other companies to pioneer forward with their own ambitions, and just two years later farmers were utilizing 1.7 million hectares for GMO growth. By 2016, they were utilizing 185 million hectares, accounting for 12% of the global cropland. However, concerns were rising about the dangers of GMOs, and in 2013 council member Margaret Wille of the Maui Council Floor was introducing a bill to ban GMOs from the Big Island. It was getting a lot of traction and before long, anti-GMO activists from around the world were video-conferencing in to the hearing to speak in support of the ban, but scientists were not given as much time to speak. After a full year, the ban was approved only to be overturned in 2015 by a federal judge from the US Court of Appeals, ruling Hawaiian counties could not enact their own GMO bans. Despite this, more than 20 other states jumped on the bandwagon in trying to push legislation banning the products or requiring them to be labeled. In 2016, Barack Obama signed a national GMO labeling law requiring food makers to list any genetically-modified ingredients in their products, only the catch was that it would be determined by the federal government as to when a product should be labeled as bioengineered – how convenient. Being that 75-80% of food Americans consume is genetically modified, it’s safe to assume only a small percentage of foods are actually indicating this on their labels. Of course, by this time, it was no longer a big game issue for them because they had already been spearheading the “organic narrative” for 14 years, covering both sides of the industry equally. They had the market well covered.
THE Leader of “Organic Food”
Whole Foods was THE leader in “organics” after launching and heavily promoting their 365 Organic Everyday Value brand back in 2002 as the first organic product line in the United States. They even introduced “enhanced meat standards.” At the same time, they were outfitting their Berkley, CA store with solar panels to become the first retailer to introduce solar power for a green environment. Coincidentally, this is the same year Al Gore began his tour on climate change, with his slideshow he had compiled for a multimedia presentation around the US and worldwide. From 2004 through 2007, Whole Foods earned Environmental Protection Agency Green Power awards for its renewable energy purchasing. Whole Foods was booming, and that same year they set their sight on Toronto, opening their first location outside the US. By December, their stock was added to the NASDAQ-100 index. They were such an amazing trend-setter with their organic products, in 2003 they became American’s first National Certified Organic Grocer, and Ernst & Young named co-founder John Mackey its 2003 Entrepreneur of the Year.
Gluten was also becoming a bit of a health issue with many people, so in 2004 Whole Foods opened a gluten-free bake house located in Raleigh, NC, covering all angles of the “organic health food” industry. By 2009, they had accumulated countless awards and recognition by every major media source, from Newsweek’s top 10 list of ‘Greenest Retail Companies in the U.S.’ to Vanity Fair’s ‘Best Provider’. This is when they made their commitment to supporting the non-GMO Project. In 2013, Fortune magazine ranked them 19th as the ‘World’s Most Admired Companies’, and they became the first national grocery chain to set a deadline for full GMO transparency, announcing by 2018 all products in the US and Canada stores must be labeled to indicate whether they contain GMO. That is a lot of back-up and a lot of fame, yet, despite this expeditious effort, and unprecedented “firsts” in the “organic”, “green” and “non-GMO” fields, they let it all go on August 28, 2017 when Amazon bought them out to the tune of $13.7 billion.
Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder, was getting one heck of a grocery chain that literally single-handedly pioneered the “organic food” industry. It was already running like a Swiss clock – how could he lose? This wasn’t the only big purchase Bezos has made since he launched Amazon. Back on October 1, 2013 he acquired the Washington Post, its real estate, and its other papers via Nash Holdings, Inc. which he established specifically for that purchase. Coincidentally, that same year Bezos secured a $600 million dollar contract with the CIA posing a potential conflict of interest, being as his papers may find issue reporting on them. Currently there is an ongoing bid up for grabs with the Pentagon for a $10 billion cloud service contract. According to a June 26, 2018 article in Bloomberg, there are at least 9 tech companies vying for this contract, the bidding has been paused, and the Pentagon states it will make its decision by September. If Amazon is chosen, that would certainly be putting a lot of eggs in the same basket.
Speaking of eggs, in 2013 Bill Gates and Peter Thiel backed Hampton Creek Foods (now known as JUST, Inc.), with their San Francisco startup, who rolled out two eggless products in California Whole Foods stores. That’s correct, the man who supports GMOs, also wants a slice of the “organic food” industry. After all, they saw this coming. The products being sold in Whole Foods are ‘Beyond Eggs’ and ‘Just Mayo’, which are made from plant-based ingredients that mimic the taste of eggs and mayonnaise. JUST is also making lab-grown meat that it wants to sell in Walmarts. Surely, they have their sights set on Whole Foods as well.
Investors weren’t the only ones paying attention. Hampton Creek Foods has seen it’s fair share of investigations and lawsuits. In 2014 Unilever, owner of Hellman’s Mayonnaise, filed a lawsuit against them for false advertising and unfair competition. Later that year they dropped the lawsuit with no explanation as to why. Of course, it could have something to do with 112,000 signatures on a change.org petition stating “stop bullying sustainable food companies”.
By 2016, the Securities Exchange Commission and Department of Justice were investigating them for a “mayo buyback scheme” to give the appearance their products were a bigger hit than they actually were. Apparently co-founder Joshua Tetrick was also concerned about president elect Trump and took out a $200,000 full page ad in the New York Times stating, “Your campaign is un-American”. Which investor foot the bill for that? According to CNN “The ad comes after 145 tech leaders penned an open letter to the world about Donald Trump, including execs from Google, Facebook, and Apple as well as startups, venture capital firms, nonprofits and universities.” Curious.
NPR published an article in 2013 titled ‘Why Bill Gates is Investing in Chicken-less Eggs”. Of course Bill Gates is also a funder of NPR, so they help to get his story out. Here is an excerpt from that story which indicates one of Bill’s other investments in the food industry.
“Raising meat takes a great deal of land and water and has a substantial environmental impact,” Gates writes. (Note: The Gates Foundation is a funder of NPR’s coverage of global health). “Put simply, there’s no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people,” Gates concludes.
A big part of the environmental footprint of eggs and meat is the amount of water and land it takes to grow the grain that’s fed to animals used in food production. There’s also the fossil fuel energy needed to produce and transport the products.
So increasingly, innovators are looking to develop plant-based alternatives. For instance, Beyond Meat is producing a meat-substitute product that’s gaining a lot of attention.
“The funds”, being the investment from Bill Gates, General Mills Inc., and Tyson Foods Inc.
This is not the only meat source Bill Gates is interested in investing in. In 2017 Bill Gates and Richard Branson invested in Memphis Meats, a San Francisco-based company that is developing meat from stem cells. Maybe Whole Foods will get in on that as well with this chummy bunch of tech giants? Just five days before the signing of the sales of Whole Foods over to Amazon, Vanity Fair published an article on ‘Memphis Meats’. Here is an excerpt:
Just as Whole Foods shareholders and the Federal Trade Commission gave the green light to Amazon’s $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods, news broke that a number of high-profile investors—including billionaires Bill Gates and Richard Branson—have decided to pour their money into a very different sort of food venture: Memphis Meats, a San Francisco-based company that is developing meat from stem cells. The start-up is part of a growing “clean meat” movement intended to produce a variety of sustainable, lab-grown meat products using animal cells, without having to actually feed or slaughter any animals in the process.
As many people are aware, Bill Gates is very concerned about overpopulation, so much so, he partnered to create an animated website chalked full of scare tactics as you scroll down and down and down to see the dire animations along with statements such as, “Will population growth be the end of life as we know it?” All of this begs the question, what are Bill Gates intentions exactly? Population control by use of stem cells, genetic modifications, and vaccines? Is that the answer, and is that the healthy route to go? Many might disagree with this approach.
They All Lived Happily Ever After (for now)
To recap, 1994 was a pivotal year where Amazon was launched, Whole Foods was catapulted, and GMOs were making their mark. But the GMO industry was having a hard time pushing through the barriers of human activists wanting to create legislation and bans for fear of obvious health risks. Despite that, people have been serving up GMO meals to their families for 30 years now, with the biggest push beginning in 1996. Whole Foods received an unusual amount of assistance along the way, with major advances and awards from big media, and supercharged the “organic food” and “green energy” paradigms, making them the first National Certified Organic Grocer AND the first retailer to use solar power. While GMOs were growing strong, the organic narrative was feverishly propagating simultaneously. But just how healthy are some of these food products when the very people advocating for GMOs and lab-grown meat are also the investors of products being sold at a “Nationally Certified Organic Grocer”? Maybe sticking with local farmers is truly the way to go, doing your own research, and always listening to your gut.
But good news! Now you can walk into a Whole Foods and buy a brand new shiny Echo for your home! Just be careful, or you might be recorded and have your message sent off to someone else, as seen in this May, 2018 CNBC report. In other good news, with just two hours notice, you can have your grocery order delivered right to your door! There’s no telling who might show up. Surprise!