Wal-Mart: Home of Cheap (Organic) Crap

My friend Robert has already excerpted the key paragraphs from the New York Times article on Wal-Mart and organic food that came out last Friday:
Most of the nation's major food producers are hard at work developing organic versions of their best-selling products, like Kellogg's Rice Krispies and Kraft's macaroni and cheese. Why the sudden activity? In large part because Wal-Mart wants to sell more organic food — and because of its size and power, Wal-Mart usually gets what it wants.
If you think this is good news, then you don't know Wal-Mart. Michael Pollan, journalist, author, and (much to my surprise) blogger for the New York Times explains why behind the paper's subscription iron curtain:
When Wal-Mart announced its plan to offer consumers a wide selection of organic foods, the company claimed it would keep the price premium for organic to no more than 10 percent. This in itself is grounds for concern — in my view, it virtually guarantees that Wal-Mart’s version of cheap, industrialized organic food will not be sustainable in any meaningful sense of the word...Why? Because to index the price of organic to the price of conventional food is to give up, right from the start, on the idea — once enshrined in the organic movement — that food should be priced responsibly. Cheap industrial food, the organic movement has argued, only seems cheap, because the real costs are charged to the environment (in the form of water and air pollution and depletion of the soil); to the public purse (in the form of subsidies to conventional commodity producers); and to the public health (in the cost of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease), not to mention to the welfare of the farm- and food-factory workers and the well-being of the animals.
In the same post he explains why the words Wal-Mart and organic are like oil and water:
We have already seen what happens when the logic of industry is applied to organic food production. Synthetic pesticides are simply replaced by approved organic pesticides; synthetic fertilizer is simply replaced by compost and manures and mined forms of nitrogen imported from South America. The result is a greener factory farm, to be sure, but a factory nevertheless. The industrialization of organic agriculture, which Wal-Mart’s entry will hasten, has given us “organic feedlots” — two words that I never thought would find their way into the same clause. To supply the burgeoning demand for cheap organic milk, agribusiness companies are setting up 5000-head dairies, often in the desert. The milking cows never touch a blade of grass, but instead spend their lives standing around a dry lot “loafing area” munching organic grain — grain that takes a toll on both the animals’ health (these ruminants evolved to eat grass after all) and the nutritional value of their milk. Frequently the milk is then ultra-pasteurized (a high heat process that further diminishes its nutritional value) before being shipped across the country. This is the sort of milk we’re going to see a lot more of in our supermarkets, as long as Wal-Mart honors its commitment to keep organic milk cheap.
And although this isn't specifically about Wal-Mart, I would be remiss if I didn't excerpt his discussion of corpoatized organic meat:
Similarly, organic meat is increasingly coming not from polycultures growing a variety of species (which are able to recycle nutrients between plants and animals) but from ever-bigger organic confined animal feeding operations, or CAFO’s, that, apart from not using antibiotics and feeding organic grain, are little different from their conventional counterparts. Yes, the organic rules say the animals should have “access to the outdoors,” but in practice this means providing them with a tiny exercise yard or, in the case of one egg producer in New England, a screened-in concrete “porch.” This is one of the ironies of practicing organic agriculture on an industrial scale: big, single-species organic CAFO’s are even more precarious than their industrial cousins, since they can’t rely on antibiotics to keep thousands of animals living in close confinement from getting sick. So organic CAFO-hands (to call them farm-hands just doesn’t seem right) keep the free-ranging to a minimum, and then keep their fingers crossed.
So please, let's stop talking about how Wal-Mart is doing a great thing for organic food. It is nothing but a corporate snow job aimed at progressives who really ought to know better.

7 Responses to “Wal-Mart: Home of Cheap (Organic) Crap”

  1. As cloudy as the meaning of “organic” is there is even more difficulty with the term “natural ingredients”.

    The new version of 7-up claims to contain all natural ingredients. They are being sued for using high fructose corn syrup which is not natural but a manufactured derivative. I should add that they are being sued by the sugar industry (that is cane and beet sugar).

    So what is natural anyway? Is tofu natural? How about beer? If Kraft uses “organic” wheat in its mac and cheese and then adds an artificial preservative is it still organic?

    Here’s a story about the 7-up issue:

  2. [...] A few weeks ago, I linked to a blog post by The Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan over at the New York Times. A week or so ago he ended his blogging stint there with a New York Times Magazine article that largely summarizes those posts. Near the beginning of the article he writes: Beginning later this year, Wal-Mart plans to roll out a complete selection of organic foods — food certified by the U.S.D.A. to have been grown without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers — in its nearly 4,000 stores. Just as significant, the company says it will price all this organic food at an eye-poppingly tiny premium over its already-cheap conventional food: the organic Cocoa Puffs and Oreos will cost only 10 percent more than the conventional kind. Organic food will soon be available to the tens of millions of Americans who now cannot afford it — indeed, who have little or no idea what the term even means. Organic food, which represents merely 2.5 percent of America’s half-trillion-dollar food economy, is about to go mainstream. At a stroke, the argument that it is elitist will crumble. [...]

  3. Vickie Phelps says:

    Organic food….natural food…. these terms cannot reflect the hard-to-grasp concept of “real food”, which is the goal. Unfortunately, real food can only be accessed on the very basic level of family farms. Any other type of food production is just that “Food Production”. Food production is a process that begins with a “seed” and ends with food on your table. Trading a measure of safety for another danger doesn’t make for safer food.

    “Food Production” involves growing MORE of any crop than would be naturally sustained by the area it is grown in, hence chicken farms, feed lots, dairies, and monoculture crop lands rather than the family level of 1 or 2 cows, 12 chickens and a home garden. The only way MASS food production can work is to artificially enhance the crops and the environment to keep up with the nutrient and resource drain that is inherent in every production process.

    “Standard Food Production(SFP)” uses the latest advances in technology and veterinary science to produce the maximum crop possible. The crops produced are abundant, nutritional, cheap and as safe as is reasonably possible. Recent history has shown that hybrid crops and meat animals have increased the overall food supply, and greatly extended the shelf life and profitability of food crops, but unfortunately has also reduced the flavor and overall quality of the foods. The other downside is that crops and animals raised in crowded confined areas tend to be less healthy than their semi-wild counterparts. More drugs and chemicals need to be added to keep the crops and animals healthy enough to go to market. (Notice I did not say “healthy”, I said “healthy enough”.)

    “Natural Food Production(NFP)” substitutes some more acceptable (and more expensive) practices for some of the most objectionable food growing practices such as the use of more natural fertilizers in place of the purely chemical fertilizers used in SFP or using semi-sterile growing conditions in meat production to lessen the reliance on antibiotics. The cost of NFP is slightly higher due to the growing mediums and loss to spoilage and disease but the food that reaches the market is unchanged overall. It is still rather tasteless but it is safe and stores well.

    “Organic Food Production(OFP)” is a magic term in the industry of food production. Most NFP farms can simply add a few enhancements to their production and take away a few chemicals and growth enhancers and *TADA* they can be certified “Organic” which is the Holy Grail for food production. OFP items go to market at a higher price and all spoilage can be taken as a tax loss at the higher market price. This is a huge double-win for large food conglomerates. OFP usually involves the harvesting of crops at their peak of flavor and appearance by hand. This does improve the quality and flavor of the produce in the market but not necessarily the safety. There have been many deaths and illnesses directly connected to “Organic” foods as is it often very hard to tell the difference between healthy and spoiled by looking at the outside of a piece of fruit. (Also, crops are still grown in monoculture fields, cows, pigs and chickens still live their miserable lives in small cages and feed lots and IF they survive, they get to wear a fancy label to the grocer’s meat department. Sick crops are destroyed and sick animals are diverted back into SFP or NFP where they will get antibiotics and chemicals to get them healthy enough to market either for human consumption or animal foods.)

    The one difference in OFP that has and will be a danger is the harvesting and processing of the crops. In a typical SFP farm, crops are harvested all at once by machine and processed quickly. For example corn will be harvested and in cans or frozen in a few hours. Cucumbers and apples are washed, disinfected and sealed with a food quality wax before packing. Everything is processed using a very tight system of fast machines that involves very little human contact. In a typical OFP system, foods are hand picked by 1 worker, hand packed into shipping cases by a second worker, unpacked and repacked by another worker, and finally packed for retail by fourth or fifth person. 90% of these workers are poor immigrants with little access to clean facilities or health monitoring. Have you ever seen a real hand washing sink in a strawberry field? Ever see apple pickers wearing a sneeze mask?

    The number one danger to the food supply system is not the chemicals we put into the crops. It is the human pathogens we expose the harvest to after it is grown.

  4. [...] Once again, can we please stop acting like Wal-Mart selling more organic food is a good thing? [...]

  5. [...] Of course, Wal-Mart doesn’t offer a living wage. That’s why they’re fighting that new law in Chicago tooth and nail. And Wal-Mart’s organic food isn’t going to be responsibly grown. Besides the often-repeated observation (at least by me) that the company will put pressure to cut corners on organic standards, there’s the fact that they often won’t even grow it in America, which carries other problems. Featherstone, again: While Wal-Mart officials have expressed concern about the “food miles” issue, industry observers predict that most of Wal-Mart’s produce will travel significant distances — Chile, Kenya and China are some of the likeliest low-cost sources, according to Mary Hendrickson, director of the University of Missouri’s Food Circles Networking Project — raising confusing questions about whether organic Wal-Mart will, on balance, hurt or help the planet. [...]

  6. [...] The counterargument, which I’ve made before here, is that Wal-Mart’s big push into organic food will destroy organic standards: Wal-Mart’s new push worries Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association, an advocacy group that lobbies for strict standards and the preservation of small organic farms. He said Wal-Mart did not care about the principles behind organic agriculture and would ultimately drive down prices and squeeze organic farmers. [...]

  7. [...] People who care about organic food (including me) panicked. [...]

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