High-Volume Organic Should We Applaud When Wal-Mart Goes Crunchy?

With 3,700 stores in all 50 states, Wal-Mart is well known as the country’s top seller of diapers, toothpaste, DVDs, breakfast cereal and
organic lettuce? It may not hold that honor yet, but it’s well on its way.

Mega-retailer Wal-Mart has announced an ambitious plan to stock organic foods, sparking heated debate. © Brian C. Howard

In March the giant retailer announced that it would double its offering of organic goods, dedicating more shelf space to food and clothing made without the use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. The move means that Wal-Mart—already the largest grocery and biggest seller of organic milk in the U.S.—could become the number one supplier of organic goods, eventually eclipsing natural food chains such as Whole Foods.

Is this a good or a bad thing? That’s the emotional question swirling among farmers, entrepreneurs and activists as they debate what Wal-Mart’s move means for the future of the sustainable food movement. At the center of the issue lies the tension between mainstream acceptance and commitment to the original ideals of the organic movement. Does pragmatism automatically involve a compromise of principles? Or can Wal-Mart’s business model be reconciled with what “organic” is supposed to mean?

For some, it’s hard to believe that the two can co-exist. “If Wal-Mart demands the world’s lowest prices for organics, they’re going to have to outsource from industrial-scale plantations that can’t stay organic for long,” says Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association. “Transporting crops around the world, even if they have a label on them that says “organic,” is not environmentally sound.”

Many organic farmers share Cummins” concern. They worry that Wal-Mart will use its overwhelming market clout to lower the prices they receive for their harvest. And they are concerned that Wal-Mart will join with other major food retailers and processors to further water down the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic standards in an effort to speed efficiencies. Above all, farmers are disturbed by the gap between the organic ideal—which stresses local production for local consumption—and Wal-Mart’s much-vaunted global supply chain.

“It’s not what the old-time organic farmers wanted things to be,” says Richard DeWilde, owner of Harmony Valley Farm, a ranch and vegetable farm in Wisconsin.

But emotions are mixed. Farmers recognize—as does advocate Cummins—that Wal-Mart’s embrace of organics will bring pesticide-free food to millions of families who have not had access to them. At the same time, by growing the demand for organics, Wal-Mart will help transition more farms from conventional practices to organic ones. The reduced spraying of chemical herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers will be an unqualified benefit for the air, the water, the soil and the species that depend on them.

“When we first started with the organic concept, we started with the hope and the intent that organic would be available to a lot of people,” says Dale Coke, who has been organically farming for 25 years on California’s central coast. “For conventional farmers, this will help reinforce that organics is an option for them.”

Those in the sustainable food movement say the issue comes down to what Coke is talking about—intent. In recent years, a slew of exposés and lawsuits have made Wal-Mart synonymous with illicit corporate behavior. The company’s reputation includes alleged exploitation of its employees, driving smaller companies out of business, fostering sweatshops, and, in general, ruthlessly doing whatever it takes to provide the lowest prices, no matter what the social or environmental costs.

Wal-Mart executives defend their motives. In an email to E, Wal-Mart spokesperson Karen Burk wrote: “We believe strongly that USDA standards for organic products must not be compromised. Our customers who buy organic products expect them to meet these standards, so we feel they must be maintained.”

In a sense, the debate over Wal-Mart’s involvement with organic food has already been settled. By now the organic sector is big business, a $16 billion industry that is by far the fastest-growing segment of the food production system. Heinz, General Mills, M&M/Mars—even agribusiness giant ConAgra—are all major players in the processing of organic foods. Essentially, then, Wal-Mart is simply doing what any smart company would—it’s following the green.

When sustainable food activists worry about Wal-Mart, they are grappling with a problem most progressive movements would love to have: success. Of course, that success comes with some tradeoffs. Most noticeably, the number of miles food has to travel, and the amount of packaging involved.

Peter Meehan, CEO of Newman’s Own Organics, a Wal-Mart supplier, readily acknowledges the conflicts inherent in shipping an organic cookie thousands of miles wrapped in gobs of plastic. He argues that as long as organic farmers and businesses are aware of that conflict and try to deal with it, the movement will stay true to itself.

“It is in fact a major contradiction to be conscious of the environment and yet creating waste streams that we aren’t proud of,” Meehan says. “I just don’t know how else to grow the business. And if we don’t grow the market, then there are fewer organic farmers, and then we can’t convert new land from conventional to organics. The fact that we are worried and concerned about these issues—that’s a good thing.”

The struggle over the meaning and future of organic raises questions that go beyond the tight-knit sustainable food community and impact the broader environmental movement. That is: What does success look like? Is it victory when Wal-Mart starts buying organic? Similarly, is it a victory to have hybrid SUVs on the road?

“First of all, you can’t make the perfect the enemy of the good,” says Michael Shellenberger, an environmental consultant and the co-author of the provocative essay, “The Death of Environmentalism,” which he has turned into a forthcoming book. “This is what success looks like. Success does not look like remaining some percentage of one percent of overall agricultural market share. What’s the goal? Is the goal to preserve the church of organic? Or is the goal to spread the religion to every corner of the Earth?”

Among those involved in the debate, a consensus is emerging that growing the organic market and preserving the principles of the movement doesn’t have to be an either/or. Instead, it can be a both/and. For the purists and the pioneers, there will still be the farmers” markets and Community Supported Agriculture programs fostering the ideal of local sustainability. For those just becoming curious about the benefits of organic food, Wal-Mart can provide the opportunity to sample new tastes. The challenge for organic farmers and businesses comes in navigating all the different currents of the mainstream simultaneously, and in finding ways of keeping the movement inclusive, so that it can continue to grow.

“Our customers aren’t going to flock to Wal-Mart because it’s a nickel cheaper,” says Wisconsin farmer DeWilde. “I really think that it’s a continuum and

a path of learning. I think it’s great if there are young mothers with financial challenges who look at Wal-Mart organic and see it’s a chance to feed their babies healthy food. Wal-Mart will start people down that continuum, but eventually they”ll go looking for something even better. And when they do, we”ll be there.”