Whole Foods, the epicenter of snobby foodies across the country, stated in a decision late last year that it would stop selling the popular Greek yogurt brand Chobani. Chobani is reportedly the best selling Greek yogurt in the United States with over $1 billion a year in retail sales.
So, why the split?
Whole Foods claims it was simply because they want to only sell Greek yogurt brands that are organic or non-GMO. The complaint is that the milk used in the yogurt comes from cows that eat genetically modified feed. The Wall Street Journal reported that Whole Foods wanted to move away from the brand to avoid any biotech products.
No, it doesn’t make any sense. Biotech has never shown to be harmful to human beings or the environment. But an irrational fear of GMOs could lead someone to believe the milk is somehow “dangerous” or “altered” (which it isn’t). And Whole Foods is in a perfect place to take advantage of those fears — after all, the whole store is basically premised on courting the fear foodies generally have of modern agriculture.
But truth be told, the split between Chobani and Whole Foods was really about control and profit.
Whole Foods is a niche grocery store. They want to sell things like organic and GMO-free foods that are needlessly expensive. While they may tout the line that they’re selling “safe” food or “sustainable” food, in reality, they’re about making big bucks too. Not that I have a problem with making money, but putting a bulls-eye on conventional farming to do it is disingenuous. And Whole Foods isn’t banning all GMO products, including other brands of Greek yogurt.
In reality, the split seems to be more about the direction Chobani wants to take versus the path Whole Foods is on.
It all starts with the founder of Chobani – a Turkish immigrant by the name of Hamdi Ulukaya, who founded the company in 2005. As I mentioned earlier, the company is profitable and extremely successful. An anti-GMO group, which advocates for labeling measures for biotech, has been pushing Ulukaya to ban the use of milk from cows feed genetically modified feed from his yogurt, but Ulukaya has refused.
I come from a dairy farming part of Turkey and grew up with yogurt and eating this simple kind of food, and when I came here I couldn’t understand why in order to find good-tasting yogurt you have to go to some specialty store to find it. So the foundation of my business model and my philosophy is that we are going to make yogurt that is delicious, nutritious and accessible to everyone.
Making his yogurt organic or GMO-free flies in the face of that goal. Conventional farming methods increase yields and efficiency, thus driving down the cost of food. According to the article, 90% of the feed produced in the U.S. is from biotech corn and soybeans, which means that farmers can’t financially afford to feed their cows organic, GMO-free feed and stay in business. If Chobani made the switch, the price of producing the yogurt would skyrocket while the supply would fall.
Which would be perfect for Whole Foods – they could cash in on a popular Greek yogurt brand that could fetch top dollar, while limiting the supply in the market place. At the same time, they could claim that the brand was supporting their goals of organic and GMO-free food.
Which shows the great irony about Whole Foods – the reality is that by supporting the types of production it considers environmentally sustainable, it actually promotes a food system that isn’t sustainable for everyone. Because not everyone can afford to buy Greek yogurt at normal prices, let alone some type of niche brand that requires special feed and limited quantities for an out-of-this-world price.
Not to mention that supporting old and outdated production methods also props up agricultural methods that cannot feed the world’s growing population. Whole Foods is, quite literally, advocating for a food system that can’t meet demand and would leave millions of people starving. And shopping there supports that result.
Yes, this stuff matters, folks.
The goods news though is that with only 370 stores, Whole Foods doesn’t command enough revenue for Chobani and Ulukaya to abandon his goals of providing “delicious, nutritious, and accessible” Greek yogurt for everyone.
Those are lofty goals that we should all be supporting.