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Wal-Mart Stores announced a program on Thursday that would focus on sustainable agriculture among its suppliers, as it tries to expand its efforts to improve environmental efficiency among its suppliers.

Do you hate Wal-Mart any less? even Michael Pollan commented on it, he doesn't like it.

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 -- in my view, it virtually guarantees that Wal-Mart's version of cheap, industrialized organic food will not be sustainable in any meaningful sense of the word (see my earlier column, "Voting With Your Fork," for a discussion of that 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 -- once enshrined in the organic movement -- 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. As Wendell Berry once wrote, the motto of our conventional food system -- at the center of which stands Wal-Mart, the biggest grocer in America -- should be: Cheap at Any Price!

What? If it's certified organic food then his concerns about the environment etc seem misplaced. Isn't organic by definition produced in a sustainable way? Would Michael Pollan lose his followers if he praised Wal-Mart, or am I missing something? The questions for you Betty since you're the organic guru.



In an interview recently at a farmer's market, Michael Pollan stated that organic farms are always better than conventional farms. He should know it is false. If there is an average difference between the farm health and environmental impact of organic and conventional, and if that average difference is smaller than the distribution of either, then the worst of one will be worse than the best of the other, hence it is false that one is always better than the other.

It is interesting to see him also say that organics in WalMart mean that organic will be pushed to not be good anymore - meaning that being organic does not guarantee that it is better?

If organic farmers were to receive government subsidies instead of the industrial agro-corporations then the prices of organic food would match industrially produced products and eventually be cheaper than them, no? A clever use of subsidies would encourage people to buy organic so industrial producers would slowly close or switch to organic. Once 95% are organic, slowly remove the subsidies so we meet the criteria of food costing what it should.

Ben in Taiwan Eating Industrial Food

Well, it might not be the environmental concern that is the main issue in not paying the 'real price' for organics. They will squeeze it out in other ways, e.g. exploitation of labor, and cutting corners in myriad other ways.

Basically, if you don't pay the real costs for anything, something or someone, somewhere, is going to really get screwed.

Videos of L.A. panel discussion on accommodationism

Really interesting discussion.

Organic does not equal Sustainable. Organic is a mere certification process that has very strict policies on specific applications of insecticides, etc. There is no regulation of the amount of water or energy used. Organic also doesn't regulate the amount of "acceptable" amendments (yet, soil-destroying) that are necessary to combat pests when practicing mono-culture... which is what Wal-Mart vendors will have to use to get the price point below Wal-Mart's standards. All-in-all, there are many ways to circumvent the "organic" certification and be far from "sustainable".

GREAT topic.

The Organic movement is at a crossroads. No one knows whether or not some form of the Industrial model must perforce accompany larger operations and larger markets. Lines are forming with respect to the degree that the best Organic model is a diversified small farm model, or can, with appropriate regulation, scale up. This issue is particularly hot with respect to livestock. Some folks are also getting all twitchy about the "Luddite", "Non-Scientific", "Unmodern," "Crunchy granola" attacks from some of the apologists for the Industrial model. In response to that, they grow reluctant to talk about or advocate the philosophical framework behind the Organic method, for fear of being disparaged for it.

Finally, the issue of self-sufficiency, (reduced outside inputs to the farm), is significantly misunderstood by many. Conventional farming bandies about words like cheap food. Organic farmers say "but there is an environmental cost (beyond it's market price) to the manufacture and use of agricultural chemicals that are not 'counted' in the cost of food. Organic methods trade more labor for fewer biochemicals , and Organic practice has always been committed in the past, to the notion that farm labor should be honored and payed a living wage.

I think nobody knows whether a simple 10% price uplift for Organic as Walmart proposes is even close to an actual cost of production difference between Conventional and Organic. Remember that most of today's conventional food dollar goes to Distribution and "value-added", and very little goes to the farmer to produce of the food. Most conventional agriculture depends on cheap labor, often receiving even less than minimum wage.

Then, in the non-food arena, Walmart is famous for tempting in small producers with their volume purchasing power, then driving down the prices to the point where the manufacturer is caught with losing a penny on every dollar sale, while trying to make it up in volume. So there is some concern about Walmart's move into the Organic market.

More later, (like Sunday after the company leaves). Place backs.

Hi Norm,

First time commenter here. Love this blog and have been following for years. This is the first time I've been compelled to speak up. I am deeply a scientist, an active researcher in psychology, understand philosophy of science at a fairly good level, and most of the time I agree with what you say. But here I am surprised that you would say this, "Isn't organic by definition produced in a sustainable way?" This shows a deep ignorance of the food production system in the United States and the way in which food labeling is regulated. An "organic" label as will be followed by Walmart says little about how sustainable the food is that is produced. The FDA regulations around the use of the term organic are incredibly weak. If Walmart does use an arbitrary price cap, this will necessitate purchasing from "organic" farms that emulate many of the practices of conventional farming that are problematic in the ways in which Pollan points out.

Love the blog. Many of us out there have been enlightened and entertained for many hours by your work. Just had to say something here.

I'm assuming they're using the USDA definition of organic farming and the products will have been grown by certified farms. Is that incorrect?

If it's certified organic food then his concerns about the environment etc seem misplaced. Isn't organic by definition produced in a sustainable way?

If I remember right, Pollan makes the argument quite strongly in his books that organic certification doesn't mean as much as it should: that large industrial growers can jump through the right hoops to get rubber-stamped as organic, while not actually being a lot more earth-friendly than before.

Are you saying that certified organic isn't really a useful way of determining if the food is being produced in a sustainable way. If so there is even less difference between organic and industrial than the organic crowd claims.

I believe that's true, if a little combative. "The organic crowd" might more appropriately be termed "bunny-huggers" or "granola munchers." A much more direct swipe would more clearly delineate the argument.

"Certified organic" spinach grown in vast tracts of the central valley has been responsible for public health problems across the continent. The land used to grow the crop is most likely improved with every harvest as the soil is returned from a chemical growth medium to nature, to an ecologically balanced environment. So the sustainability question takes wings here... how much value is added or subtracted from the culture by the manufacture and use of plastic clamshells, the transportation of huge quantities of produce vast distances, the provision of refrigerated storage in big-box stores, and the energy used by the tens of thousands of Priuses driving extra distances to reach those stores and return home with their discounted big boxes?

Sustainability has a broader set of dimensions than those applied to a grower's operation. "Certified organic" is a branding device that includes some statutory clout.

Smuckers organic peanut butter is a lot more expensive than the non-organic variety. I doubt Walmart will find it available at a price differential that will make it possible for them to sell that product. Will they find a provider of organically grown peanuts that can help them maintain the price differential they've boasted about? Perhaps they will, if food remains a commodity product whether produced "organically" or by chemical-industrial methods. Margins are always squeezed out of commodity pricing models. But we'll do well to remember that the mass produced organic spinach carried salmonella nation-wide. The ultimate social cost of that model may not be sustainable in the future. Perhaos there are intangible benefits such as quality that drive us away from a commodity model.


Yes, pretty much, and especially when it's coming from big conglomerates. Indeed, the term Pollan uses is "organic-industrial": googling to find an example turns up an interesting column of his from way back in 2001.

But there seems to be a lot of variation between companies. Every now and then I've come across isolated articles on which companies have more substance behind their green marketing (eg Marks & Spencer's in the UK and Lundberg Rice in the states) and which ones aren't walking the walk so well (eg Trader Joe's, surprisingly); but I wish I knew a single good source for this kind of information. There's a regular Greenpeace report that rates the large electronics companies, but I don't know any equivalent for food.

Aw gee guys. You are making me SO discouraged.

I mean, do you really think our country will be a better place without small farmers who take responsible environmentally sensitive stewardship of the land they borrow from the future as a sacred obligation?

Will it really be better without farmers who treat their livestock with respect and consideration for their health and comfort?

Do you really think it's better for communities to have no local food production capacity from small farms growing healthy fresh food?

Do you really think that just because you don't care how your food is produced, nobody else should be able to know anything about theirs?

Contamination of mass produced and distributed food by newer vicious strains of E-Coli and Salmonella, occur with increasing frequency. The very existence of these strains may be laid directly at the door of the Industrial agriculture model. Now they are here. Salmonella on our vegetables. Mass distribution industrial models make small outbreaks big. It even happened to Organic spinach.

Does this really mean that because an Organic product went bad, that Organic has no virtues?

Do you really think that if sustainability is imperfect then more is no better than less?

Heavy sigh. I'm feelin' OLD AND IN THE WAY.

Like a deer in the headlights, I've watched with horrified fascination as the Industrial farming GMO juggernaut takes aim at Organic practice.

Destroy the brand, destroy the competition. It's just good business.

You've gotta hand it to them. The marketing program is breathtaking in it's thoroughness.

'Tis little wonder why the politics of destruction are so popular these days. Tearing down is so much easier than building.

Gather the opinion makers and intelligentsia. Appeal with rosy promise of wonderful future things from bio technology. Selling futures with long lead times is a low risk proposition for sure.

Discourage objection with disparagement.

Object to corporate monopolization of the world's food genetics, and be branded as one of Glenn Beck's crazed conspiracy theorists.

Demand truth in labeling and one's very 'right' to information is challenged. "They're too dumb to understand a label anyway, why give it to 'em."

(Reminds me of those male politicians who don't worry themselves about unplanned pregnancies, so object to 'allowing' women access to birth control.)

Folks now say "we can't afford to put more land in agriculture because of the environmental damage associated with it, and the loss of wild land in agricultural conversion." "Therefore", they add, "we must force higher and higher 'yields' from existing farmland." Hence, of course, Organic is bad because we can get more "yield" without it.

Where were these folks when thousands and thousands of acres of some of the finest crop land in the world, were converted helter skelter into subdivisions of McMansions that no one could really afford even when they got those low ball mortgages. - Subdivisions of foreclosures now sitting empty, silent and useless.

Heck. I don't know anymore. I worry about the extent to which Industrial Organic can be true to all the components of Organic practice that matter to me. I suppose that getting some components right are better than none. I expect that current efforts to plug some of the more egregious loopholes through which some bad practice has crept into the Organic industry will have a salutatory effect on the problems with large livestock operations.

And yet, I'm still thinking that when it comes to food production, small is better. With so many things, some is good, too much is bad. Like, a little manure is great for the soil. A lot is not good at all. Some water is essential. Too much exceeds both need and supply.

Remember back in the day, when forward-thinking cities set aside land for schools, libraries and parks?

I'd like to see small farms near every community.

No, this of course would not eliminate any need for large scale food distribution, but it surely could reduce it. Widely distributed small parcel Agricultural land growing diversified food crops can reduce the demand for every increasing yields and their associate environmental degradation from large scale monoculture. Finally, it seems to me that Local food production capability is the heart and soul of Homeland security.

If the current onslaught of attacks succeeds in neutralizing the Organic brand, then we enter a whole new dimension of "Don't ask, Don't tell." We say to our fellow citizens, "Don't ask what's in your food, cuz we ain't gonna tell ya."

Just because we try to grow healthy food for our families and communities doesn't make us Organic farmers bad people. Honest. Gotta say though, I'm getting pretty disheartened. Why try.


Discouraged, that's not in your nature. I want small local farms and I want them to use sound environmentally friendly practices that are sustainable. My beef is that to hear the small organic farmers and ranchers tell it, small organic farms will feed the world, and as you acknowledge it's just not so. As you're aware I also object to what I view as a bias against genetically engineering crops using modern techniques. I think it's quite clear that the science doesn't support such a view.

I also think that the industrial model needs a great deal of improvement, monocultures are not best practice. I think producing food for millions of people can be sustainable, but not without using all our tools. Bt engineered crops have saved farmers billions of dollars and are responsible for a decrease in the use of dangerous pesticides.

We need to work together, the questions are not either or, we need to abandon the idea that organic is automatically good and industrial farming is automatically bad.

It's the polarization of views that stifles progress.

So keep talking to those cows, give the chickens room to roam, and enjoy a glass of fine wine.

Do you really think it's better for communities to have no local food production capacity from small farms growing healthy fresh food?

my goodness, this is purely contentious and flirting seriously with strawman-ism. nevertheless, i think it's an important question and i can't help agreeing with you about most things. even though i know that, due to the nature of the interwebs, your real name is probably "frank mccoy" or something, and you're representing some "group". i mean, can there really be a "betty jo" just defending organic farmers on her own for the hell of it? still, i find your arguments pursuasive most of the time and have learned a lot from them and i thank you for this. frank. :)

i mean, can there really be a "betty jo" just defending organic farmers on her own for the hell of it?

Indeed there is, of that you may rest assured.

re: "FEED THE WORLD Norm said: "My beef is that to hear the small organic farmers and ranchers tell it, small organic farms will feed the world, and as you acknowledge it's just not so."

huh? No. Not exactly. What I "acknowledge", or rather what I think, is this.

U.S. Agriculture surplus commodity feed dumps on needy communities are, at times, the ONLY way to place short term focus on a food DISASTER. The name of that game is "Cheap, Concentrated Food Energy in Readily Transportable Form."

But because that may be the best way to respond to a particular temporary disaster, doesn't mean that it's the best way to avoid it, OR get out of it! Much less is this a good way to run business as usual.

Did you wonder why school lunches, even today!, in the face of epidemic childhood obesity and diabetes, focus upon highly refined carbohydrates? It's because the school lunch program REQUIRES purchase of the cheapest concentrated food energy.

Looking after our tax dollars they are, those old boys on the Ag committee. Multi-generational health care costs resulting from that "feeding 'em cheap" strategy are not their concern. They're just providing the "food service" and calling it "kind and compassionate". Hell. It's a win - win situation cuz that's just what their big Ag donors think is best too!

By what misguided presumption do we trumpet that it's in the jurisdiction of American industrial Agriculture to decide how to feed the world?

I say, Until we can figure out how to solve the food and nutrition deficits in our own country, our own cities and rural communities, and THEN go FIX them, we remain totally unqualified as a nation, to advise how to "feed the world". If we can't do it here, what makes us think we could do it somewhere harder?

I think that the way to feed our country is to encourage, facilitate, and support small farms,community gardens, local grocers and markets in every locale.

The consolidated large scale production/distribution system we depend upon for our food, costs too much of our food dollar. And, like the proverbial bad apple, one local food pathogen can spoil the whole barrel (or thousands of lbs of beef or lettuce or peanut butter). Finally, the infrastructure requirements associated with our food system, are exactly the thing that makes our industrial model CLEARLY inappropriate for most of the hungry world outside our borders.

I heard an interview on MPR a while back that made me so sad. This guy was being interviewed about job creation in the North Bay (Oakland/Emeryville CA). Oh man. He was all enthusiastic and proud of how they'd succeeded in bringing good jobs to their community, even in the face of the global economic meltdown. Right there on the radio, he explained how Enterprise Zone dollars were wrestled out, to use as incentive to persuade Bayer (a German based Bio-Tech giant) to bring a small bio-tech laboratory to town. Such an enterprising young man he was, sure he was doing great work even during economic down turn.

Well may you ask, "What's to be sad about? What's wrong with THAT?"

What made me sad was the Opportunity Cost of that choice. As you know, Enterprise dollars were intended by Congress, to encourage and facilitate entrepreneurship in poor communities. I mean, DAMN! If only that nice young man had thought to promote using Enterprise dollars right there in OAKLAND, to support dead space clean up and garden creation, to support start up of small groceries selling produce instead of just liquor and chips - Groceries and farmer's markets that might provide food local distribution to the local community of food produced by labor needing work, right there in that community. Healthy food school lunch programs and nutrition education to the children, and to the Moms trying to spend their WIC coupons as best they can for the good of their family, but who never had a Granny to teach 'em Home Ec.

Instead, we spent our Enterprise dollars by sending them to Germany in exchange for a few bio-tech high skilled jobs. Is that bad? Who knows? Perhaps, decades from now, as a result of the work performed in these new jobs, cheap high food energy feed might be more nutritious that what our citizens eat today. But the work those lucky few do, will not help neighbors feed themselves, nor provide honest labor to all those folks looking for it today. right now. It coulda been so much better to use Enterprise dollars to build up good food enterprise in that local community. Now. A shovel ready project if ever there were one.

But nobody said a word about that. Not the guy. Not the Interviewer. Nobody even thought about whether there might be a better way to use a few of those rare Government dollars to help the community for which they were appropriated.

Do I think Organic Agriculture can feed the world?

I think many small Organic farms close by populations that need feeding have a better chance to make a difference in world hunger, than does the industrial food model of large scale Ag concentration whether it be Organic or Conventional.

I think that small farm model combined with support for small business grocers, markets and cooperatives have the best chance to overcome the costly infrastructure issues inherent to large scale distribution, and the best chance of returning more of the consumer's food dollar to production of food quality, not to mention soil, water and livestock health.

Which model will prove to be better for feeding the world? Only time might tell. De-Globalization of food production just might be a good place to start figuring that out though.

Betty Jo, I agree that a distributed model of agricultural production has the potential to feed the US and probably the world an improved diet while conserving natural resources. But I just finished a pretty good Frederick Forsyth novel, and I was reminded that without all those bulk transport freighters and shipping containers the logistics to supply the world demand for contraband pharmaceuticals, not to mention bananas, would be impossible to manage. Frank (not McCoy)

Dear Frank (not McCoy),

Of course you are right that commodity products are important. Most anyone can grow spuds, but you need a water paddy for rice. And it's hard to extract all the Oat groats from husks without specialized equipment. Grinding Corn and wheat is no big deal, it doesn't need big capital investment to produce flour in family sized quantities, but for a bakery worth of wheat, you've gotta have a mill. For more than an acre of grain, it's really nice to have a thresher. Chicken fat and suet only go so far in the kitchen, where would any of us be without olive oil? And, to be sure, I know you love your bananas, and to me Christmas Eve would not be the same without tangerines in the Christmas stockings for the kids to grumble over in the morning.

I'm thinking more along the lines of not HAVING to take so many of our food calories from this corn/soy/wheat trilogy, Which we could do, if we got more produce into the food dead zones in cities and towns. It doesn't take much land to grow a lot of food. Not to Mention, IF we can figure out how to do it, this model also appears to be the most likely to be a useful export to hungry nations.

That said, I am not a Luddite. I support interstate commerce and very much approve infrastructure projects. Getting product from farm to market is a really big deal.

As you know, Jerry Brown in running to replace Governator Arnie in our Statehouse. Recycled youth, right there in a candidate. Always liked old Jerry. Thought he exhibited outstandingly eclectic taste when he took Linda Rondstat with him on a visit to Africa. Poor girl, I don't think she had a very nice time what with the media going all gaga, while Jerry totally ignored her, for he was in his element, doing policy wonk discussions with all manner of folks.

where was I? oh yea. So, I liked Jerry's Dad Governor Pat Brown too. Pat (love those highways) Brown. That man kept a highway construction system running for decades, he knew the value of shovel ready projects. ANY time he had some funds for work, you bet he had a whole bunch of projects ready to rock.

I found Peter's 10/16 reference to the 2001 Michael Pollin article most interesting (thanks).


Some people appear to view with dismay the large companies now marketing so much of commercial Organic produce. Here they see something that reminds them too closely to the "Big Industrial Agriculture" model that drove them to Organic in the first place.

But, the transport / distribution model only works with volume. If you want to move product outside a small area, you need to interface with transport somehow. I don't think this requirement to interface in bulk necessarily means that consolidation must reach all the way down to the field. It need not require large scale "Industrial-Organic" farming and confinement livestock operations.

Since practically forever, farmer's cooperatives, and other buyer/distribution arrangements have been created to address consolidation of food from many small producers. I see nothing wrong with companies taking on this important task for the Organic sector.

Major food distributors should be linking up with local farmers or at least taking a leaf out of their book in terms of quality. With the new technologies in food and beverage distribution management, with the right tools distributors can save time thus allowing for more time to focus on quality and sustainability.


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