As regular readers know, I’ve struggled for a number of months to come up with an adequate response to Wal-Mart’s announcements of various sustainability initiatives, including its plan to double its offerings of organic foods. On the one hand, making organics widely available at the world’s largest retail chain will raise the profile of organic agriculture unlike any promotion effort we’ve ever seen, and make it available to shoppers who simply can’t afford the current markup on organics. The scale that Wal-Mart brings to any initiative certainly has its drawbacks, also: their ability to keep prices low through massive purchasing will hurt local stores and farmers markets, and will require tapping the global agricultural market, thus undermining efforts to keep organic production and sale localized. I’m not convinced that the positives outweigh the negatives here, but I have a tough time verbalizing my uneasiness. So, I was thrilled to come across Andy Larson’s essay on the subject in the Rockford, Illinois, Rock River Times. Larson not only expresses his own misgivings much more eloquently than I, but also brings expertise on agriculture to the table. His conclusion: perhaps awareness of the issues surrounding our food may be the best we can hope for:
…shopping at mega-stores, although cheap and convenient, is not necessarily a good replacement for buying organic and local foods from independent retailers and nearby family farms. Global organic does have some benefits, but eating local, seasonal organic food from farmers you know is liable to get you food that is fresher, tastier, potentially more nutritious, and has more positive economic and social impacts on your community.
Organic demand is increasing, and the organic industry is growing, so we must take the good with the bad. Still, we can all be conscientious consumers who think about the repercussions of our food purchases and play active roles in governance that affects our food. (my emphasis)
If you only shop at mega retail stores, look into the organic section and see what you can learn. If you currently shop at farms, farmers’ markets and specialty stores, don’t let the convenience of the giant retailers let you forget about the benefits of buying from farms, farmers’ markets and specialty stores.
Take the time to read his whole essay. You may not end up any closer to a conclusion on this issue, but you’ll definitely have a better sense of the issues at play.
UPDATE: Right after I posted this, I found another article dealing with these issues more broadly… More required reading.