If any of you have ever read anything by Michael Pollan, you’ll appreciate his recent article in the New York Times on the organic food that’s now available at Wal-Mart. Michael is nothing if not fair–in his inimitable style, he discusses the good, the bad, & the ugly.
This is good news indeed, for the American consumer and the American land. Or perhaps I should say for some of the American land and a great deal more of the land in places like Mexico and China, for Wal-Mart is bound to hasten the globalization of organic food. (Ten percent of organic food is imported today.) Like every other commodity that global corporations lay their hands on, organic food will henceforth come from wherever in the world it can be produced most cheaply. It is about to go the way of sneakers and MP3 players, becoming yet another rootless commodity circulating in the global economy.
Oh, but wait. . .I meant to talk about all the good that will come of Wal-Mart’s commitment to organic. Sorry about that. When you’re talking about global capitalism, it can be hard to separate the good news from the bad. Because of its scale and efficiency and notorious ruthlessness, Wal-Mart will force down the price of organics, and that is a good thing for all the consumers who can’t afford to spend more for food than they already do. Wal-Mart will also educate the millions of Americans who don’t yet know exactly what organic food is or precisely how it differs from conventionally grown food.
Wal-Mart’s push into the organic market won’t do much for small organic farmers, that seems plain enough. But it may also spell trouble for the big growers it will favor. Wal-Mart has a reputation for driving down prices by squeezing its suppliers, especially after those suppliers have invested heavily to boost production to feed the Wal-Mart maw. Having done that, the supplier will find itself at Wal-Mart’s mercy when the company decides it no longer wants to pay a price that enables the farmer to make a living. When that happens, the notion of responsibly priced food will be sacrificed to the imperatives of survival, and the pressure to cut corners will become irresistible.
But before you pour yourself a celebratory glass of Wal-Mart organic milk, you might want to ask a few questions about how the company plans to achieve its laudable goals. Assuming that it’s possible at all, how exactly would Wal-Mart get the price of organic food down to a level just 10 percent higher than that of its everyday food? To do so would virtually guarantee that Wal-Mart’s version of cheap organic food is not sustainable, at least not in any meaningful sense of that word. To index the price of organic to the price of conventional is to give up, right from the start, on the idea, once enshrined in the organic movement, that food should be priced not high or low but responsibly. As the organic movement has long maintained, cheap industrial food is cheap only because the real costs of producing it are not reflected in the price at the checkout. Rather, those costs are charged to the environment, in the form of soil depletion and pollution (industrial agriculture is now our biggest polluter); to the public purse, in the form of subsidies to conventional commodity farmers; to the public health, in the form of an epidemic of diabetes and obesity that is expected to cost the economy more than $100 billion per year; and to the welfare of the farm- and food-factory workers, not to mention the well-being of the animals we eat. As Wendell Berry once wrote, the motto of our conventional food system — at the center of which stands Wal-Mart, the biggest purveyor of cheap food in America — should be: Cheap at any price!
This is a must-read if you’re interested in the organic vs. non-organic and local vs. mass-produced debates about food.