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 â€” 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 â€” in my view, it virtually guarantees that Wal-Martâ€™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 â€” once enshrined in the organic movement â€” 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-Martâ€™s entry will hasten, has given us â€œorganic feedlotsâ€ â€” 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 â€œloafing areaâ€ munching organic grain â€” grain that takes a toll on both the animalsâ€™ 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 weâ€™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 CAFOâ€™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 â€œaccess to the outdoors,â€ 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 â€œporch.â€ This is one of the ironies of practicing organic agriculture on an industrial scale: big, single-species organic CAFOâ€™s are even more precarious than their industrial cousins, since they canâ€™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 doesnâ€™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.