Wal-Mart Ruining Organics for the Elites?
There’s an interesting piece in today’s NYT Magazine noting that, by attempting to make organic foods–now derided by many as an elitist luxury–cheap enough for the masses to afford, Wal-Mart may be undermining the very things that make organics desirable in the first place.
Assuming that it’s possible at all, how exactly would Wal-Mart get the price of organic food down to a level just 10 percent higher than that of its everyday food? To do so would virtually guarantee that Wal-Mart’s version of cheap organic food is not sustainable, at least not in any meaningful sense of that word. To index the price of organic to the price of conventional is to give up, right from the start, on the idea, once enshrined in the organic movement, that food should be priced not high or low but responsibly. As the organic movement has long maintained, cheap industrial food is cheap only because the real costs of producing it are not reflected in the price at the checkout. Rather, those costs are charged to the environment, in the form of soil depletion and pollution (industrial agriculture is now our biggest polluter); to the public purse, in the form of subsidies to conventional commodity farmers; to the public health, in the form of an epidemic of diabetes and obesity that is expected to cost the economy more than $100 billion per year; and to the welfare of the farm- and food-factory workers, not to mention the well-being of the animals we eat. As Wendell Berry once wrote, the motto of our conventional food system — at the center of which stands Wal-Mart, the biggest purveyor of cheap food in America — should be: Cheap at any price!
To say you can sell organic food for 10 percent more than you sell irresponsibly priced food suggests that you don’t really get it — that you plan to bring business-as-usual principles of industrial “efficiency” and “economies of scale” to a system of food production that was supposed to mimic the logic of natural systems rather than that of the factory.
Remember, now, at the moment most people simply can not afford “organic” food. They’re consuming food that’s been sprayed with pesticides and prepared with preservatives to give it a long shelf life. And whatever cost to the environment that comes from these practices is already being borne. So, we’re comparing an ideal–growing foods that yield some health gains to the consumer in addition to various environmental benefits–that does not presently exist at anything but a niche level because of cost against a proposed reality where the health gains are made possible for the masses but without the ancillary environmental gain.
We have already seen what happens when the logic of the factory is applied to organic food production. The industrialization of organic agriculture, which Wal-Mart’s involvement will only deepen, has already given us “organic feedlots” — two words that I never thought would find their way into the same clause. To supply the escalating demand for cheap organic milk, agribusiness companies are setting up 5,000-head dairies, often in the desert. These milking cows never touch a blade of grass, instead spending their days 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. But this is the sort of milk (deficient in beta-carotene and the “good fats” — like omega 3’s and C.L.A. — that come from grazing cows on grass) we’re going to see a lot more of in the supermarket as long as Wal-Mart determines to keep organic milk cheap.
But isn’t that how affordable milk is produced now? Why don’t we compare Wal-Martized organic milk to the status quo?
We’re also going to see more organic milk — and organic foods of all kinds — coming from places like New Zealand. The globalization of organic food is already well under way: at Whole Foods you can buy organic asparagus flown in from Argentina, raspberries from Mexico, grass-fed meat from New Zealand. In an era of energy scarcity, the purchase of such products does little to advance the ideal of sustainability that once upon a time animated the organic movement. These foods may contain no pesticides, but they are drenched in petroleum even so.
No, they’re not. They’re merely transported. But don’t we transport goods globally now in consuming non-organic foods?
Whether produced domestically or not, organic meat will increasingly come not from mixed, polyculture farms growing a variety of species (a practice that makes it possible to recycle nutrients between plants and animals) but from ever-bigger Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFO’s, which, apart from using organic feed and abjuring antibiotics, are little different from their conventional counterparts. Yes, the federal organic rules say the animals should have “access to the outdoors,” but in practice this often means providing them with a tiny exercise yard or, in the case of one organic egg producer in New England, a screened-in concrete “porch” — a view of the outdoors. Herein lies one of the deeper paradoxes of practicing organic agriculture on an industrial scale: big, single-species CAFO’s are even more precarious than their conventional cousins, since they can’t use antibiotics to keep the thousands of animals living in close confinement indoors from becoming sick. So organic CAFO-hands (to call them farmhands seems overly generous) keep the free ranging to a minimum and then keep their fingers crossed.
Okay. But how would mass-produced organic meat compare to mass-produced non-organic meat? And, would the niche organic products now available still be available for those willing and able to invest in ensuring that the animals grown to be killed and eaten have enjoyable lives? If so, what’s the harm?
Wal-Mart will buy its organic food from whichever producers can produce it most cheaply, and these will not be the sort of farmers you picture when you hear the word “organic.” Big supermarkets want to do business only with big farmers growing lots of the same thing, not because big monoculture farms are any more efficient (they aren’t) but because it’s easier to buy all your carrots from a single megafarm than to contract with hundreds of smaller growers. The “transaction costs” are lower, even when the price and the quality are the same. This is just one of the many ways in which the logic of industrial capitalism and the logic of biology on a farm come into conflict. At least in the short run, the logic of capitalism usually prevails.
So? What has that to do with healthy food or a healthy environment? Is organic food about a social ideal or about science?
Wal-Mart’s push into the organic market won’t do much for small organic farmers, that seems plain enough. But it may also spell trouble for the big growers it will favor. Wal-Mart has a reputation for driving down prices by squeezing its suppliers, especially after those suppliers have invested heavily to boost production to feed the Wal-Mart maw. Having done that, the supplier will find itself at Wal-Mart’s mercy when the company decides it no longer wants to pay a price that enables the farmer to make a living. When that happens, the notion of responsibly priced food will be sacrificed to the imperatives of survival, and the pressure to cut corners will become irresistible.
As opposed to the status quo, where farmers charge whatever they want, make fabulous incomes, and cut no corners?
I understand the utopian ideals that many advocates of organic foods are pushing and think many of them are worthwhile. They are not, unfortunately, economically sustainable. I shop at Whole Foods several times a week and pay substantially more for groceries than I used to at Safeway and other supermarkets. I don’t do it because of a political agenda but because I think the food, especially the meats, taste better. Fortunately, I live in an area where such options are available to me and where incomes are high enough that I can afford it.
The reality, though, is that most people simply can not afford to pay $3 for a dozen eggs, $6 a pound for chicken, or $15-30 a pound for steak on a regular basis. It’s literally more expensive to buy groceries at Whole Foods and prepare your own meals than to go out to dinner at a chain restaurant like Applebee’s or Ruby Tuesdays. I couldn’t have done that on an assistant professor’s salary in south Alabama even if there was such a store available. Certainly, people working for hourly wages in the service economy couldn’t.
The perfect should not be allowed to become the enemy of the good. In an ideal world, local farmers would produce delicious foods grown without any harm to the environment at prices we could all afford while simultaneously making an excellent living. The livestock would all live happy lives, singing their little animal songs, dying a natural death and yet remaining tender and tasty. We would then get together and cook them over our campfires which produce no smoke, sing our little camp songs, and eat our meals in perfect harmony.
That world, unfortunately, does not exist.
Update: Joe Carter looks at this story from a socio-economic perspective, through the vehicle of David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise.