Big Organic, Bad Organic

Stacy Mitchell at Grist recently described the ultimate ‘Trojan carrot,’ discussing WalMart’s plans to move into organic packaged foods since it’s done so well with organic produce. She looked at the issue in the context of WalMart’s attempt to dominate a growing percentage of the food supply, pointing to the fact that the company’s share of the food supply has risen substantially, and that this latest foray into organic is another iteration of the company’s takeover strategy. This plays into a larger issue within the food supply, where a dwindling number of suppliers are handling the bulk of our food, which doesn’t bode well for food safety and security, or true consumer choice.

She also noted that WalMart’s greenwashing has allowed the company to expand dramatically across the US since 2005, the year consumer pushback against its practices began to seriously affect WalMart’s ability to make headway in the market. With promises of more environmental responsibility, organic produce, and other measures, the company appeased communities that wanted to hear surface platitudes — but did not, in fact, make good on them. She points out that WalMart’s emissions, for example, are actually higher than they were when the company made its original promise to make good on its obligations to the environment.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, she argues, WalMart has a tremendous effect on class in the regions where it operates:

Indeed, no company has done quite as much in the last 20 years to undermine the broad middle class and expand poverty. Walmart has propelled poverty at the macro level of our economy as well as the micro: One peer-reviewed, published study found that when Walmart opens a store, poverty rates in the surrounding county rise.

WalMart has a long history of being depicted as the devil in a smiley plastic bag, and with good reason. The company exploits workers both at home and abroad in order to support its extremely low prices — for every WalMart worker in the US demanding fair wages, better hours, and reasonable treatment, there are even more overseas who are being exploited to produce the products sold on WalMart’s wide, inviting aisles. The company hasn’t made good on addressing the environmental problems associated with its business practices, and is a profoundly illustrative example of the evils of capitalism made very real, present, and pressing.

Mitchell’s concerns about the company’s potential effects on the food system are very well-founded. The narrower and more centralised a food system is, the more at risk the population becomes. When your food system is controlled by a limited number of companies, they decide what goes in your food, how much you’re going to pay for it, what will be available, and how you’re going to use it. It might not be apparent at first, but over time, it will become painfully obvious — and by then, it will be too late to take action, as diverse food sources will be gone, consumed in the maw of commercial powers like WalMart, like Whole Foods.

To be sustainable in the long term, and to enable consumer choice, the food system needs to be broken up. Centralisation isn’t necessarily more efficient for food production or for environmental conservation — in fact, it can drive the environmental costs of food up radically. Furthermore, it’s bad for food producers and farmworkers, who tend to be exploited as the market shrinks. When small farms can’t afford to compete with industrial players, they drop out of the market. When massive companies take over, they’re not interested in caring for their workers, or for the land, and the result is that both are abused until they break.

WalMart’s decision to start carrying packaged organics is part of the industrial organic wave that’s engulfing organic certification and rendering it effectively meaningless. Is food still organic if it complies with the letter of the law, but not the spirit? Is there a functional difference between industrially produced conventional lettuce and industrially produced organic lettuce if the two are grown side by side, in the same fashion? (With the organic lettuce taking advantage of its placement next to an industrial and sprayed crop?) Are consumers aware that industrial organic producers are trying to undermine the organic label, exploiting its loopholes so they can handle crops in ways that may surprise people who pride themselves on only eating organic food?

Fixing the food system is not as simple as slapping on ‘organic’ labels and calling that true consumer choice. We need to be talking not about certifications, but actual farming processes, how food is handled, and where we want to see the industry in the next ten, twenty, or thirty years. I for one don’t want to see WalMart consuming the grocery and food market — because having a monopoly on food production is dangerous for consumers, for farmers, and, from a capitalist perspective, for other businesses trying to break into the market.

WalMart’s focus is on continuous expansion and dominating the market, which is a classic capitalist tactic. Despite the efforts of activists, it’s succeeding very well, sometimes even with active support from organisations that should be digging a little deeper. If WalMart wants to be lauded as a responsible company, it needs to actually be one — and if it was, it could be a remarkable turning point for labour and society both in the US and abroad. If a huge corporation started treating workers fairly, caring for its supply chain, and behaving ethically, it would prove that it’s possible to combine care and profits.

Image: Andrew Dubber, Flickr.