Walmart is expanding into the organic food sector. In April, the box store giant announced that it will sell more organic food at lower prices, up to 25 percent less than brand-name competitors. By partnering with Wild Oats, a former subsidiary of Whole Foods, a new line of organic foods will soon be available in 2,000 of Walmart’s U.S. stores. (There are 4,000 stores in total.) How exactly Walmart plans to do that, however, has not yet been explained. Walmart hasn't divulged where and who its new organic suppliers will, nor their size.
This may seem like a good idea at first glance – making organic products more affordable. Walmart makes it sound like an act of goodwill for cash-strapped shoppers: “We’re removing the premium associated with organic groceries,” said Jack Sinclair, executive VP of Walmart’s U.S. grocery division.
Ah, yes, the premium! The problem (at least for Walmart) is that there are some very good reasons why organic food has a premium in the first place – most importantly, to reflect the true cost of production. Turning organic food into a large-scale, industrialized process for the purpose of stocking Walmart’s insatiable shelves destroys the essence of organic food that many shoppers are happy to pay for, such as higher quality, better traceability, avoidance of corporations, elimination of middlemen, higher returns for farmers, supporting small scale agriculture, etc.
Hence the problems with Walmart’s plan:
It would likely increase the cost of all organic food for the short-term because there is not nearly enough out there to meet Walmart’s needs, as well as those of consumers. It takes three years from the time a farm stops using chemicals on crops to become certified organic, so expansion is a slow process.
It will result in more industrial agricultural practices, which is precisely what many shoppers want to avoid when they opt for organic products grown by smaller farms. Incentives from Walmart could push farmers toward the bare minimum of organic standards and the eventual depletion of soil health. Mark Smallwood of the Rodale Institute told Grist that he worries about what this means:
“Will a large agricultural operation come in and buy up tens of small family farms and put them all under one name, and then create that slash-and-burn model? That’s what I’m afraid of.”
Cheap organic food may be the last thing we need. Last week, Maggie wrote for TreeHugger that an estimated 31 to 40 percent of food gets wasted in the United States, and that could be because food is already too cheap. Waste doesn’t hurt us enough to make us care. Just thinking of my weekly CSA share of organic vegetables and heirloom grains, I’d have to agree; it's tempting to use those foods with greater care than foods I buy at the supermarket because of how much they cost. At the same time, however, we desperately need better subsidies for healthy, fresh foods and for organic farmers to ensure that everyone eats well.
Finally, it’s more than a little creepy to think that Walmart already controls more than 25 percent of grocery sales in the U.S. and, according to Grist, plans to add 385 more stores by 2015. Clearly Walmart doesn’t understand that many shoppers choose to buy organic food not just for its added nutritional value and lack of pesticides, but because they don’t want to support huge corporations. More and more people, myself included, just want to get out of the supermarket and buy locally.