The Cornucopia Institute, a progressive group that advocates for family-scale farming, released a report today showing that an "organic Wal-Mart" may indeed be more Mean than Green.Look, very few people, especially among those who shop at Wal-Mart, actually care strongly about whether their food is organic. When people buy "organic", what they're after is much more likely to be the satisfaction they get from the uncritical assumption that by doing so they are being more responsible shoppers. Most people don't even know what "organic" means (to the extent that the word has a standard meaning in the first place.) It seems implausible, to say the least, that many people would be willing to pay noticeably more for such a nebulous benefit.
According to the report, the company has a contract to source milk from Aurora Organic Dairy, which is one of the worst industrial organic offenders -- using cattle confined in feedlots, with little if any access to pasture. Aurora is also being investigated for a number of other violations of the organic standards. While there are plenty of problems with milk sold by Horizon (also available at Wal-Mart) at least Horizon gets about half of its milk from family-scale farms; Aurora's is 100% factory farm.
Wal-Mart's appeal - and, really, its only redeeming characteristic - is its ability to deliver goods to consumers at low prices. The Nation getting bent out of shape because Wal-Mart isn't willing to forgo its wildly successful business model to further the interests a relatively small number of organic advocates demonstrates equal parts naivete and liberal dogmatism. What did they think was going to happen? It's right there in the slogan! "Always Low Prices. Always." They even underline it.
The issue, in other words, is public opinion. Not Wal-Mart.
And there's this:
Cornucopia also reports that Wal-Mart is indeed, as many observers predicted, sourcing some of its organic products from China -- canned chick peas and other beans, for example. This could certainly be good for the Chinese, as the demand may cause many acres of conventional farmland to go organic, cleaning up the surrounding groundwater and soil. But it's also troubling because shipping products such a distance, when they could be grown locally, is a waste of energy, and exacts a formidable toll on the ozone layer; such a practice hardly meets the ideal of sustainability that many customers are seeking when they look for that organic label.No mention of the potential economic benefits to the Chinese - probably because what we have on our hands is a serious disability to sympathize with the economic plight of the Chinese. Sure, maybe Wal-Mart could encourage more environmentally-friendly farming in China, but why don't the Chinese just do it themselves? Well, because they're too poor, and the organic way of life is a luxurious option not available to people without an abundance of wealth. If you really want the Chinese to farm less efficiently, you're going to have to, in effect, subsidize their farms.
I worry that environmentalism will become the last refuge of the economic isolationist scoundrel.
Update: OK, I think maybe I wasn't clear. Well, I think the part about China stands up fine, but the first bit's a little obscure.
My objection to the Nation, here, is that they fail to realize that they care way more about what "organic" means than most people do. On some level, the Nation, or, more exactly, Liza Featherstone, seems to recognize this, because Featherstone never actually comes out and says she thinks Wal-Mart's lying about its organic products. Instead, she does at least one of two things (I can't tell exactly), both of which are objectionable.
First, she seems to imply that Wal-Mart isn't meeting organic standards by alluding to the possibility that Wal-Mart's producers won't pass muster upon closer examination. That, however, isn't a problem with Wal-Mart, it's a problem with Wal-Mart's producers and the bodies that oversee them.
Second, she seems to suggest that even if Wal-Mart is technically selling organic products, they're not organic enough. Again, that's not fair to Wal-Mart; if Featherstone thinks the criteria for organic food are excessively loose, that's fine, but it's hardly Wal-Mart's job to define "organic" more strictly.
Again, nowhere is the claim explicitly made that Wal-Mart is actively deceiving its customers - because to all outward appearances, they're not. Her frustration is therefore misguided - the problem is with the organic community, as far as I can tell. Wal-Mart seems, by and large, to be playing by their rules.
See this comment for a little bit more.