Could Wal-Mart be a force for good?

The NYT had an article May 12 about Wal-Mart drooling over the organic market. The nation’s largest grocery chain (!) has carried a few vegetables and brands so far — who knew that it was the largest purveyor of organic milk? — but it would really like to get its hands on the premium prices commanded by lots more organic goods … and then lower them. Instead of premiums of 20-30% like Whole Paycheck charges, Wal-Mart might charge a 10% markup. Apparently it wants to start with the items with already the highest markup: processed foods like organic Rice Krispies. (Yes, you read that correctly: organic Raisin Bran and organic Frosted Mini Wheats are coming in July. Yay!)

Ronnie Cummins, head of the Organic Consumers Association (a lobbying group for small organic farms), seemed a little less than thrilled. He predicts the Wal-Mart business model “is going to wreck organic the way it’s wrecking retail stores, driving out all competitors.” Or, hello Horizon Milk, home of the dairy version of CowSchwitz (but organic!); goodbye Straus Family Creamery. Cummins also worries that Wal-Mart will outsource its produce supply chain to China, like it has everything else in the superstore: China has dubious organic conditions and of course those questionable labor practices.

My first reaction was to go into high-alert mode, like watching the neighborhood thug on the corner sauntering after a little old lady with her purse dangling from a frail arm. However, taking a devil’s-advocate, Peter-Singer, greater-good view of this debate, don’t we want Wal-Mart to offer more organic? It will enable millions of Americans to make better food choices than are currently available to them in the places they already shop, at a price they can afford. Even if Wal-Mart’s suppliers continue to raise monocultures that they ship huge distances to the company’s 2,000 outlets, surely the load on the planet has to be less. And if they do outsource to China, don’t we want China to be practicing better agricultural methods than it currently is? (I’ve read that China uses many of the pesticides long ago banned in the U.S.)

However, the Wal-Mart executive quoted in the article was not very reassuring. “Organic agriculture is just another method of agriculture — not better, not worse,” he said. “This is like any other merchandising scheme we have, which is providing customers what they want. For those customers looking for an organic alternative in things like Rice Krispies, we now have an alternative for them.”

Organic “a merchandising scheme”? I had a sudden longing for the Richard E. Grant character and his talking boil from How to Get Ahead in Advertising.

Question is, even if Wal-Mart doesn’t actually believe in its organic snake oil, is it possible that by forcing its suppliers to switch over, it could do more good than harm? Thoughts?

4 Responsesto “Could Wal-Mart be a force for good?”

  1. Man of La Muncha says:

    Outsourcing organic production to other countries does not improve the situation in those countries if those countries use organic methods only for their exported foodstuffs. Instead of dumping pesticides and fertilizers onto U.S. soil, the pollution will be shifted to another country in the form of transport waste and to the oceans in the form of cargo ship waste (not just leaking fuel but also cargo containers that are washed into the sea).

    The mention of Horizon’s CowSchwitz is telling. A 10,000 gallon lagoon of organic cow manure is not much better than a 10,000 gallon lagoon of manure from cows that are raised on non-organic feed. Methane gases and particulate matter from both lagoons affect air quality. Organic shit is still shit.

    But those are complaints, not hard arguments. I would point to the USDA’s lax attitude toward organic standards (mentioned in the Horizon article at Organic Consumers Association) as the biggest problem with WalMart’s interest in organic products. The USDA has shown itself to be less interested in the safety of consumers than in the appeasement of businesses. What value is the organic designation if the USDA does not trouble itself to oversee the organic accreditation process?

    WalMart’s entry into the organic business will be good for marketers, who will be engaged to sell consumers the illusion that they are buying environmentally friendly products. Don’t expect the truth of WalMart’s organic food system to be any more appetitizing than 10,000 gallons of manure. WalMart’s operations deserve close examination before they can be lauded for their organic offerings.

  2. Zdean says:

    The word “organic” has already been diluted from what it once was. Before the word was co-opted by government (and industrial farming/ranching operations), it encompassed a great number of things, including: good for your health, good for the environment, and good for a localized food chain.

    Working backwards, “good for a localized food chain” has already been obliterated as most organic food travels the standard 1500 miles of the industrial food network before it hits your supermarket shelf (and yes, that holds true for WholeFoods as well).

    “Good for the environment” is on its way out as organic monocultures aid in the destruction of polyculture farms. Net result: soils that are depleted of nutrients requiring thousands of tons of organic compost to be transported thousands of miles (using vehicles that eat up gasoline) to feed the dying fields. Follow that up with the need to keep the produce refrigerated on 18-wheelers while they are transported across the country (if not across continents). Look at the net effect of organic and the overall benefit of not using pesticides can seem questionable.

    Finally, the last remaining promise of organic culture, food that is “good for your health” stands to be the last hurdle for the industrial organic mechanism (of which WalMart will be at the forefront). Already, their are any number of loopholes that allow industrial producers to use non-organic products in the growing of “organic” produce or raising of “organic” animals. With Walmart’s added pressure, there is no doubt in my mind that in a decade from now, the word “organic” will cease to have any real meaning. The end result: industrial giants will be able to use the “organic” label to sell foods that will have dubious health benefits.

    In the end, as the word “organic” becomes diluted and people realize that it is a guarantee without meaning, the ONLY losers will be small, local, polyculture farmers who will face the disdain of consumers who will at some point or another feel conned by the current “organic” charade.

    So, is Walmart bad for organic? Only if that word is to mean anything 10 years from now.

  3. Walmart will do anything to make a buck. Do they care about organic as a mega-corp? If the answer to that question is yes, I’ll eat my figurative hat with a red bell-pepper aioli. I suspect Walmart’s decision to sell organic foodstuffs is a calculated ploy, one simply intended to move more product.

    Problem is, the USDA is in the pocket of the big food lobbies. So, the dilution of organic is demoralizing and depressing but comes as no surprise, if you’ve read or listened to Marion Nestle lately. As foodie consumers, we have some great options if we live in food havens such as the Bay Area. But for people who care about what they eat and who live far from even a Whole Foods, are Walmart’s organic offerings a boon? For the short-term, perhaps, but my guess is that as the organic label comes to mean little, new terms and definitions will be developed to replace it.

  4. I have a very strong feeling that organic farming in China will be something other than “organic farming”.