Certainly one of the biggest stories in organics in 2006 was the announcement by Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer and the largest seller of groceries in the U.S., that the chain was moving more aggressively into the organics sector, in both food and non-food items. It’s difficult to blame Wal-Mart for desiring a piece of the fat organic sales pie; sales of organic food have been growing at many times the rate of non-organic food sales for some years now (the 18% to 20% annual growth I see most often quoted for organic food sales is nothing short of astonishing).
According to CNNMoney.com, Wal-Mart first introduced organic products roughly five years ago. But the company only dipped a toe in the pool of organic foods, because it wasn’t thought that their higher prices were a good match with the chain’s customer base, many of whom have lower incomes. But recent changes in Wal-Mart’s strategy, especially the idea that the company can appeal to higher income groups, has resulted in a major push into the realm of organics, including food, clothing and baby formula.
What are the implications of this move? Wal-Mart is known for low prices; when a chain can buy the massive quantities necessary to stock so many stores, that volume can keep down items’ prices. Will organics be less expensive at Wal-Mart than they are at many of the upscale natural foods store chains or independent natural foods stores in the U.S.? Very likely; Wal-Mart’s goal for organic items is to price a mere 10% above the cost of identical, conventionally-produced items. Proponents of the move argue that Wal-Mart’s decision will force other stores to become more price-competitive with their organic items, that Wal-Mart will make organic products widely available to more consumers and that more acreage will be devoted to organic crops, and more livestock raised organically, within the U.S. (and possibly abroad). According to an article printed last March at BusinessWeek.com, in 2005, in the state of California alone, the acreage used in organic livestock production increased over 25%, while the acreage devoted to raising organic vegetables increased just over 10%.
But not everyone is delighted by Wal-Mart’s increased presence as a purchaser of organics. The chain has a history of beating down its suppliers on prices, for starters, and organically-raised groceries should provide a good value for their producers as well as their consumers. Wal-Mart isn’t the only giant stepping up its interest in organics, and megacorporations have lobbied successfully in the past to weaken organic standards. Organic farmers can’t always keep up with demand for their products as it is, but diluted standards will hurt everyone in the long run, by rendering the term “organic” worthless (some claim that’s already the case). And there are legitimate concerns that greatly increased demands for organics could result in more imports of “organic” foods and products, produced in countries where organic standards are, shall we say, not a priority, much less carefully overseen.
Questions Re Unsound Practices
Perhaps inevitably, there have already been accusations that Wal-Mart is cheating consumers.
The Cornucopia Institute, an organization dedicated to “economic justice for family-scale farming,” has filed a formal legal complaint with the USDA, alleging that Wal-Mart is incorrectly identifying non-organic items as organic in its stores. This was first noticed at a test-market store in an upscale suburb in Texas. Subsequent visits by Cornucopia staffers to other branches of Wal-Mart in the Midwest reportedly resulted in similar findings in both the produce and dairy aisles. If the chain is found guilty of misrepresenting non-organic items as organic, fines of up to ten thousand dollars per violation could be levied.
The Institute has also charged Wal-Mart with depreciating the concept of organics by sourcing products from industrial “factory farms” and Third World countries (such as China) where there are many questions about “organic” practices, as noted above.
Specifically, the complaints about factory farms relate to the organic milk sold by Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart has partnered with Horizon Organic (owned by Dean Foods, and the country’s largest organic dairy) and Aurora Organic Dairy. (Aurora was started by one of Horizon’s founders and private-labels organic milk-that is, they produce it, but they sell it under the name of the store that buys it from them). Both Horizon and Aurora have come under a cloud of suspicion regarding the way they treat their dairy cattle; Aurora is the subject of two different USDA investigations into their organic practices.
There is another issue here that needs to be discussed, and that’s the topic of Wal-Mart’s prices versus their ethics. There are many consumers who don’t consider the corporation’s ethics, or can dismiss them from their minds when faced with the chain’s low prices, many of which are admittedly bargains compared to similar items in other stores. Others, however, find that it’s more difficult to entirely absolve Wal-Mart from some of their past doings, whether those relate to the treatment of employees, negotiating with suppliers, or misrepresenting the authors of a blog that supposedly documented Wal-Mart workers who were delighted with their jobs.
It’s up to you, dear reader, to make up your mind on this score; no one else can do it for you. I’d suggest reading both Wal-Mart’s website (look into some of the links in fine print) and a site called WalMartWatch.com, to get a little more information.
Whether you swear by them or at them, it’s unlikely that Wal-Mart will disappear anytime soon. One thing is sure: this corporate giant will leave its mark, for good or ill, on organic production and values.
Organic Find Of The Month: Local Harvest
Strictly speaking, not everything offered on the Local Harvest site is organically-produced. (Read a little further: some of it isn’t even local.) I don’t care; I think it’s a great concept anyway. Where else can you find an online resource that will tell you about restaurants in your vicinity mindful of organics and local foods, not to mention those great CSA programs (if you don’t know about CSAs, or Community-Supported Agriculture, you should)? Local Harvest will also find groceries, co-ops, and Farmers’ Markets for you; you need only type in your zip code and click your mouse. You may be surprised at what your area has to offer.
Local Harvest is a good resource for online ordering, too. Yes, I know that defeats the concept of using only products made or grown locally, but I don’t believe consumption solely from local sources is always practical, especially at this time of year when people are looking for gifts. And Local Harvest has some items that would make wonderful gifts. Organic Lemon Balm for tea? Of course! Organic Brandied Cranberries? You bet! Organic Yarrow Infused Oil? No problem.
Be aware that not everything offered through the online store is organically-produced. Some is biodynamic, some is transitional, some is organic, and some is none of the above, but at least it’s easy to tell which is which. Meantime, there’s a great selection in categories ranging from Dairy & Eggs to Chocolate & Desserts to Pet Needs to Wool & Fibers. And you’ll find all kinds of small companies you never knew existed, From Salamander Springs Farm to Black Mesa Ranch to Black Cat Honey. Check out Local Harvest. One caveat: if you’re ordering for the holidays, please do so early! These are small producers, so their supplies may be limited and they’ll need a little time to get their products to you.
Asian blend microgreens from Creekside Farms, a member of Local Harvest.
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