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Mixed feelings about Wal*Mart’s sustainable agriculture program.

October 17, 2010

Last Thursday, on Twitter:

@jorgeimontalvo Jorge I. Montalvo
Director, Strategic Initiatives, NYS Consumer Protection Board: food policy and consumer protection
Food folks: what do you think?: Wal-Mart Plans Drive to Buy More Locally Grown Produce:

@tracyfood Tracy
Food geek, one-time-regular blogger
@jorgeimontalvo I have more mixed feelings about Wal*Mart’s “Global Sustainable Agriculture” plan than fit in 140 chars. Must. Blog. Soon.

Here, at last, is my post.

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News stories, in roughly the order I saw them:

* * * * *

My first thought was, I’ll admit, a mix of kneejerk snobbery and “Solidarity Forever”: ew, Wal*mart. Also cynicism: wow, I guess there’s money in local food after all, or there’s no way they’d do this, greenwashing and good press be danged. Next I wondered: Does this mean the local food trend has finally jumped the shark? Or are businesses really running that scared from increased government recognition (and regulation) of food systems that they’re trying to get ahead of the curve before anybody makes a law or something?

Well, I’m sorry, but I still don’t believe the private sector alone can solve all the problems of modern, unsustainable, industrialized food systems. Our systems are the results of policy decisions, government involvement and support of some ways of doing things rather than others, and fixing them means rearranging policies as well as the infrastructure (physical, financial, and interpersonal) that grows out of policies, whether intentionally or not. So good job, Wal*Mart, but I’m still never going to conclude that government should leave food systems to the private sector, let alone that we stop regulating food systems in favor of subsidies—ahem, incentives—for industry’s efforts to make them (look) better.

That said, Wal*Mart is not to be underestimated, and they’re committing serious money to this effort. Sure, $1 billion is a piddling percentage of their business, and their definition of “locally grown” (in the same state as or within a day’s transport of a distribution center) has plenty of flaws (just consider this map of the NYC foodshed!) Plus, they only aim to double local produce sales to 9% (of what, I wonder, since the articles I’ve seen are unclear whether that’s total produce sales, total grocery sales, or something else). And yet…

Nine percent of Wal*Mart sales is a lot and if they’re really looking to buy more from small and medium-sized farms, and increase the income of those farms by 10-15%, that could make a real difference in a segment of the agricultural economy that struggles even though smaller farms are often way more productive acre for acre than big monocultures which produce the foods (or at least ingredients) of which we already have way more than enough. Furthermore, whatever else you say about Wal*Mart (and there’s plenty; just pretend I’ve gone on a giant rant about socialized costs of business but privatized profits, teaching workers to apply for SNAP and Medicaid instead of giving them better wages or benefits, etc.) their distribution network is second to none, and if it moves more real food in addition to whatever other more-profitable crap Wal*Mart sells, then about that I can’t complain.

Sure, I’m skeptical about Wal*Mart’s sustainability standards, and concerned that farmers will lower their own standards on pesticides or labor practices to keep prices Wal*Mart low. But at the same time, I can’t complain about reduced agricultural chemical use, and if you care about food miles, well… there’s those state-of-the-art distribution networks again, and pound for pound, fuel unit for fuel unit, the most efficient food supply chains are local/regional systems that aggregate products from many farms to take advantage of transportation economies of scale (see King et al. Comparing the Structure, Size, and Performance of Local and Mainstream Food Supply Chains, USDA Economic Research Service, June 2010).

I’m also worried about Wal*Mart cornering the market on the products it deems “sustainable,” but that won’t stop people from seeking out better stuff if they can; I don’t think they’ll force farmers’ markets out of business. And if Wal*Mart is some people’s only option, then it’s especially good for that one option to offer better choices. Heck, if this program grows the market for more diversified, more productive and less ecologically-damaging small and medium-sized farms, that would be awesome. In the end, despite all my cynicism about greenwashing and “oh yeah, now that it’s popular and the good food movement has laid all the groundwork for them to profit from,” I don’t really care if Wal*Mart or anybody else does the right thing for the “wrong” reasons—as long as they do the right thing. Ultimately, we’ll have to wait and see how this program works out. Meanwhile, I’m doing my best not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.

Cross-posted to TracyFood, where I linked to an earlier WFPA post on this story from February, which I would be remiss to omit here. Go team!.

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