Wal-Mart has been a big presence lately in news about giant corporations changing their social and environmental tunes. They've built a few energy- and water-efficient stores, promised to start selling sustainable seafood, and even installed a green roof on a new Chicago store. So the logical next step in Wal-Mart's image overhaul? Organic food.
According to the New York Times, Wal-Mart has enlisted its suppliers to start stocking their shelves with organics, a move that would inevitably have a powerful impact on the organic food industry as a whole. They would almost instantaneously become the largest organic food retailer in the country - leaping way past Whole Foods in a single bound.
So many of us have played out "what if" scenarios about this kind of thing in the past. "What if one of those really big corporations decided to move towards responsible sourcing? What if Starbucks only bought Fair Trade coffee? What if McDonald's only served grass-fed beef and free range chicken?" So now we get to see what happens if Wal-Mart offers organic food. One result is certain: this will be some of the cheapest organic food around, given Wal-Mart's ability to offer low costs due to massive scale. But other things are less predictable.
Some of the concerns emerging around this corporate move recall similar cries around the passing of the USDA's National Organic Standards Act, which became fully effective in October, 2002. Will the passage of a singular standard compromise the overall quality of organics? Is it a lowest common denominator that will cease to encourage farmers to practice healthier, cleaner farming techniques? Will the standard allow giant ag to be certified organic and push out small family farms, whose goods are far superior, but who cannot afford to be certified, or who simply cannot compete on price when companies like General Mills or Dole Foods can slap an organic label on their package?
Then there are questions about the food itself. The offerings themselves, though perhaps made with organic ingredients, are going to be the same. Kraft and Kellogg plan to add organic mac and cheese and corn flakes to their list. And supposedly we will shortly be able to purchase organic Pepsi (sorry, but...is this real?). Marion Nestle, an NYU professor, author, and leading voice on issues surrounding the changing food system, attests that this is merely "a ploy to be able to charge more for junk food."
The potential for big agriculture to destroy the integrity of organic farming stirs valid concern. And the ongoing problem of overconsumption of junk food and its resulting health crises need not be overlooked. Nevertheless, one of the vital thematic threads running through Worldchanging is that big business can have positive effects on the world. In an ideal scenario, Wal-Mart ought to be able to use their might for advancing better farming practices, encouraging healthier eating habits, and increasing access to organic food for low-income families.
For all the scrutiny and attack Wal-Mart faces, those who wish to the giant fall probably have a long wait ahead of them. Wal-Mart is only getting bigger and more profitable. Their 2005 global revenues exceeded $285 billion and annual growth rates have been between 16% and 18% for more than five years.
Not only that, these recent moves toward "green" business demonstrate Wal-Mart's willingness to flex according to the demands of consumer culture. They recognize the need to adapt, and whether or not they are greenwashing a fundamentally unchanged system really matters little to the effect this new facade will have on their profits.
With this move into organic, they are both attracting the more well-to-do, yuppy shopper who would otherwise go to Whole Foods but always loves a deal; and those who would otherwise buy conventional foods for cost reasons but have a desire to eat organic, and now, thanks only to Wal-Mart, can afford to.
The whole thing brings up an intensely complex set of interlocking problems and solutions, far too enmeshed for a simple answer to whether an organic Wal-Mart is ultimately good or bad. The fact that in one sweeping gesture, Wal-Mart can singlehandedly create the greatest demand for organic food in the world is pretty remarkable. And so the fact that they intend to actually do it is that much more amazing. But as Gil said at the end of last year, the best still isn't good enough. If Wal-Mart is unstoppable, then it's up to us, when they cannonball into the organics industry, to help keep the smaller organic businesses afloat, and to hold the bar high for consistently improving not only the organic standards, but the nutritional value of the foods on Wal-Mart's shelves.
Good post, Sarah, and good questions. The discussion may include a understandable airing of views about Wal-Mart, and whether mass-merchandisers are a huge leverage point or mere "greenwashing".
My concern is more about local versus remote food - what some call "Food with a Face". Personally, I don't think organic is as important as local/regional. Food, like birth, illness, death and other fundamentals of life, should not be out of sight, out of mind. We should know a lot about who produces our food. We should know the biography of our meals. That's pretty hard to find at Wal-Mart.
Many of us, at least many of us Americans, decidedly DON'T want to know the stories of the things in our lives: food, clothing, shelter, energy, medicine. We distinguish brands, but have no interest in how the shiny merchandise reaches the store shelves. We're like a Mafia boss who, wanting something unsavory done, tells his underlings, "Take care of it for me - don't tell me any details."
We should want to know the details.
My major concern is that, currently, organic farming produces less food per acre than conventional farming. So I would assume that they don't expect their organics to become massively popular... unless they expect a large number of farms to abandon their conventional methods and transform into organic farms. And that takes years doesn't it?
I don't know how all this was sort out but an anecdote from my local Vitamin Cottage in Boulder, Colorado might point the way. According to a manager there, Whole Foods next door tends to get the cream of the crop and has priority over Vitamin Cottage when it comes to supply of produce. Whole Foods is bigger and can dominate the market to the detriment of smaller organizatons like Vitamin Cottage.
What will Wal Mart's market dominance and exclusive swupply relationships do to the existing marketer s of organics? Will we see the demise of the Whole Foods, Vitamin Cottages, and Wild Oats of the world? And will we care? And does it matter?
As for me, I will be shopping at my local CSA, at least in the Summer.
The recipe for success for smaller stores is to figure out how to get people to pay more - more for experience, more for human-ness, more for niche. That's a tough sell, although some out there have got it down pat.
Interested to read David's feelings that local is better than organic. The big company that provides a true, unassailable "biography of a meal" will have it made.
Ironically, Wal-mart is set to use RFID to keep track of its entire supply chain. If they insist on the same level of traceability from their suppliers, they will have better information about their food than all but the best managed local shops.
It will be interesting to see how farmers and markets will handle that kind of demand, and whether more farmers will want to transition to organic agriculture because of this.
Before you get too choked up over WalMart's spiffy decision to be organic:
This is an *evil* company.
I've been wanting this for some time and my reasons are fairly practical, so hear me out. First, our family prefers the organic food because it tends to lack some of the "added" things in non-organics. We have Whole Foods markets around but it was great when Kroger began to carry more organics because Whole Foods is too expensive. Wal Mart is the cheapest yet, and they are carving up the grocery business faster than they did the general retail business.
Why would Wal Mart be better than Whole Foods? Because it's close. It's close to everything because it's everywhere. If you live in Wal Mart country, you likely live in a place where there's little public transportation available. Also, grocery shopping is the one time that your own vehicle is a lot more useful than the bus. We have Wal Mart neighborhood grocery stores all over the place. I can literally walk to the nearest Wal Mart Neighborhood grocery store. Weather permitting, I could park a wagon out front and lock it to the bike rack.
A visit to Whole Foods is more fun but it's pricey and even worse, round trip, it's 40 miles. In my Honda Civic, that's between 1 and 1.3 gallons of gas. Lucky I don't drive a Suburban like everyone else around here. It's also not between home and work, so it's a special trip that I can't combine with anything else. I pass 3 or more Wal Marts between home and work, depending on the route I take.
I also hope for organics because it would be nice for the price of these foods to come down so poor folks can enjoy them too. I've shopped Wal Mart and Whole Foods both. Whole Foods is pretty much upscale and elite. Wal Mart is cheap and for people on tight budgets--on assistance or the working poor--it's great. Generally when I leave Whole Foods, I'm embarrassed to have paid so much for so little. With Wal Mart, it's the other direction, I'm usually surprised to have got so much for so little.
The idea of local food is really cool, but has anoyone noticed the distribution of people? How do people in a major metropolitan area get "local" food? Growing up, my family used to grow a good deal of our own food (including meat--a byproduct of goat milk is unneeded bucks). Not everyone wants to do that, though. Living in the suburbs now, I couldn't do that if I wanted to. I don't have the land, I don't have the time, and the city would bust me for watering my vegetable garden in the summer months to keep it from shriveling up. How does Manhattan or Chicago or LA get "local" food with a story? It's a sexy idea but I think it breaks down when you apply it to the way that North American population is distributed.
To me, organic food isn't primarily about health, it's about the environment. Yes, health is also a concern, but it's a separate one. Bring on the organic cheesecake!
To DS George: Food and Cities is a big problem, but not an insurmountable one. Urban agriculture must be developed and we have to fundamentally alter the way we build and self-manage cities. Allotments, community-assisted agriculture surrounding cities and re-use of garden and park spaces (lawns-to-vegetable-patches) need to be considered.
Not sure if WalMart going organic is the answer. I'll re-phrase that. I'm sure Walmart going organic isnt the answer. This is extreme naivete.
Have you guys not been paying attention?
Walmart offering organic food would only be significant as long as people would know where the food is being produced. As everyone knows that Free Trade Rules misuses the word "free" to protect products from rich countries, whose farmers by the way, receive government subsidies to produce products at a low-cost, which unfortunately affects small-scale farmers living in third world countries. While health is important, economics play a big role in ensuring that what we eat (while we are living in rich countries) wouldnŽt kill another.
Hello? Wal-Mart has been the largest seller of "organic" food for some time. Also, organic has been proven to be just as efficient at providing quantity per acre as conventional. The difference between small farm organic and industrial organic is that the large organic industrial farms are slowly chipping away at the standards that made organic different and better. Cows eating in the pasture and "free-range" chickens are a sham. Yes, we have less poisons in our food, and the environment is better off which is great. But true organic is the small farmer down the road from your home. Support small, local organic farms for true organic healthy food.
wal mart going organic is bigger than all your petty ideas that change from day to day.
they have the world and you have an internet message board.
bwa ha ha ha ha.
donna-- i feel bad for the correctiosn officer who will sell his land and mobile home and move elsewhere... but not nearly as bad as i do for the farmers in India who drink Roundup (thanks Monsanto) because they see no out and hare indentured for life to starve growing chemical ladden food for sirst worlders..
if WalMart can help those guys grow organics instead of terminator seeds and roundup ready GEs, I am all for it!
also as good as organic agrioculture is, it's no match to remineralized food just as our entire biospehger desparately needs to be remineralized...
and back to what DVID LUCAS said: since remineralized produce not only gives you higher vitamin and mineral content, but in creases yields, this is surely something that a mega corp can figure out by looking at the line items... more hope for the future now that walmart goes organic!!!
ok one last thing; SARA surely you've read that Lee Scott speech 21st Century Leadership? so you know it's not just "the logical next step in Wal-Mart's image overhaul" this is buisness. just good business instead of cutthroat. the last thing they want to do is convince us dirty smelly hippies to start shopping there.. they are more than happy selling organic cookies and tea to their regular shoppiers
Organic + Wallmart = Orwell.
No no walmart + organic = soylent green:)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, no doubt hoping to limit public controversy, has announced a very short public comment period (ends May 12, 2006) on proposed new federal regulations that will weaken organic standards. USDAs proposed amendments, supported by grocery store chains and large food corporations, will allow so-called organic dairy feedlots to continuously import calves from conventional farmswhere the calves have been weaned on blood, dosed with antibiotics, and fed genetically engineered grains and slaughterhouse waste. USDAs new rules will also allow over 500 artificial (synthetic) substances in organic processed foods without prior scrutiny and review by the National Organic Standards Board. USDAs latest efforts are basically an attempt to codify last falls controversial Sneak Attack in Congress, when industry players and the Organic Trade Association convinced the Republican Party majority to attach a last minute rider to the 2006 Agricultural Appropriations Bill.
I have great concerns about large corporate chains getting their hands into the organic market. I think the organic waters will become murky indeed. I also caution my mother to remember that organic junk is still junk. If 95 percent of the ingredients are organic and the other 5 percent are chemical additives, it still has chemical additives. I think you are still better off buying your fruits and vegetables at local farmer's markets and organic co-ops and making food yourself. I know a novel idea, I know. I have just recently started making my own granola cereal. Much better than what you can get at the grocery store. When I do buy cereal, we buy EnviroKidz cereal, which has only three ingredients and all of them are organic.
Organic, does not mean humane. Organic milk can still come from factory farmed cows, as long as the cows are fed organic food and not given hormones and antibiotics. So you still get milk full of stress hormones and illness. It is important to investigate companies before buying their products and read labels.