Time was, a war of words between a food writer and an organic-foods retailer would have attracted the interest of maybe seven people in your local food co-op–a bit of chatter over the brown-rice bin and everyone would move on. Those of us in a Safeway with our Perdue roasters and our broccoli avec a hint of pesticide would not have known that an argument took place. But the recent exchanges between Michael Pollan, author of the 2006 bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, and John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods, are, if not squarely in the mainstream, awfully close to it.

Thanks to his perch as The New York Times Magazine’s resident food sage, Pollan is a well-known champion of the ethical superiority of small, local organic farms, and of the superior taste of their products. Whole Foods, of course, is a bringer of organic food to grateful yuppies across the country. In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan describes Whole Foods as the embodiment of “Industrial Organic.” The company’s appetite for product has driven some organic farmers to scale up and become very much like the farms they were supposed to replace: organic dairies now house thousands of cows who have never munched on a patch of grass, while Brobdignagian vegetable farms ship their produce across the country, undercutting small, local farmers. Whole Foods even sells “organic” TV dinners (Pollan says one he tried “looked and tasted very much like airline food”) and, during the North American winter, has asparagus shipped north from Argentina. This would be environmentally dubious on its face, Pollan suggests, given the fuel required to ship the vegetable. In any case, it “tasted like damp cardboard.”

Mackey immediately fired back. In an open letter on the Whole Foods Web site, he said his company was committed to local farmers as well as consumer choice, and he charged that Pollan’s blanket condemnation of large farms undersold the benefits of encouraging big agriculture to eschew pesticides. The dispute culminated in February, when two thousand people paid $10 each to see a debate between Pollan and Mackey at the University of California at Berkeley. For those expecting an interenviro cage match it was anticlimactic, but Mackey did seem genuinely concerned that the industrial-organic label was going to stick to and hurt Whole Foods, despite its $5.6 billion in sales last year, and 19 percent growth.

“What am I eating?” Pollan asks in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. “And where in the world did it come from?” Those two questions, and Pollan’s ability to unpack them with an enviable, discursive essay style, have made him into a food writer who can scare ceos and, maybe, move markets. In the past few years a raft of reporters and writers have stepped forward with him to answer those twinned queries in all their anthropologically thick complexity. Their work draws together issues of taste, ethics, and politics, bridging the gap between James Beard and Rachel Carson. Much of their writing has an activist tone: last September, The Nation
brought together several environmentally conscious writers under the umbrella of a “Food Issue.” But mainstream newspapers, too, now know that their readers expect them to report on the political and ethical implications of food–and to track trends generated, in part, by the new food writers.

In 2004, for example, The New York Times hired away from The San Francisco Chronicle its star food writer, Kim Severson, who describes her beat as “food from the table out.” In recent months, Severson has written about how supermarkets have been “greenwashed” via deceptively enviro-friendly labels and packages, taken note of the neologism “food miles,” a measure of how far one’s food traveled to get to one’s table, and interviewed people who had sought out farmers’ markets after an e. coli scare involving bagged spinach. “The world of food reporting had been divided,” Severson told me recently. “You’d have an agriculture reporter who didn’t understand how a kitchen worked and a reporter covering hunger who might not understand what it took to put food on the table at night,” plus the restaurant critics and the recipe editors. Newspapers today, she adds, “are really bringing all of that together.”

Christopher Shea is a columnist for the Ideas section of The Boston Globe.