Melanie Warner at the NYT reports today that Wal-Mart is about to dramatically increase its organic food offerings.
In very understated fashion, she says, “Wal-Mart’s interest is expected to change organic food production in substantial ways.”
Um, yeah, it sure will.
Wal-Mart’s plan is to sell organics ~10% over the price of non-organics — a much closer premium than you can get elsewhere. It’s also getting brands like Pepsi, Rice Krispies, and Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese in the game.
There’s good back and forth in the article about the pros and cons of further industrializing organics — availability and expansion of the market in the pros, weakening standards and increased overseas production in the cons.
I’m torn about this. On one hand, it hints at a possible tipping point whereby agriculture might adopt organics much more widely; on the other, it raises the specter of complete corporate domination of organics. There’s an ongoing fight to weaken organic standards, and Wal-Mart’s entry may enable agribusiness to erode organic’s validity.
Another issue, tied up with this one, has been bothering me lately. It comes up in a lot of enviro writing, especially related to food: an unquestioned tangling of values and goals. I’ll take it up more fully in a later post, but wanted to mention it here.
In Warner’s article, a Wal-Mart exec is quoted as saying, “Organic agriculture is just another method of agriculture — not better, not worse.” The advocacy group Organic Consumers’ Association is described as being concerned that “Wal-Mart did not care about the principles behind organic agriculture,” and that outsourcing will lead to “dubious organic standards and labor conditions that are contrary to what any organic consumer would consider equitable.” I imagine many Gristmill readers will agree with the OCA’s position, but I’m not so sure.
In my mind, organic is an agricultural practice, not a cultural norm. There’s nothing inherent in organic agriculture that prohibits industrialized farming. There are important issues about protecting standards, but if we agree on standards for organics, then it’s inevitable we’re going to see industrialized versions of them.
That’s a good thing, right? Organic foods are healthier, and organic practices better for the environment. So I want to see more people eating organics. The goal is organic food production, but the unquestioned value tangled up with that goal is small, locally owned farms. Organics may have evolved in small farming practices, and we may feel an attachment or preference for that approach, but for me that’s not really the goal.
A bias against industrialized food production itself, based on the past behavior of agribusiness or our desire to see more small farms, is counterproductive and marginalizes our arguments. Vigilant protection of organic standards and oversight of organic practices is more valuable, and allows organic food production to grow and benefit more people. Our stomachs may turn at the prospect of organic Pepsi, but it’s important to examine what about that upsets us — and not assume it’s inherently a bad thing.