How Walmart's New Mass-Produced Organics Line Could Threaten Organic Farming

There's a right way and a wrong way to grow organic foods.

Photo Credit: littleny /

Mark Smallwood remembers gardening with his grandmother in Ohio when he was a kid. They used organic farming techniques because, to his grandma, that was just how gardening was done.

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“I don’t think [my grandma] could pronounce the word, ‘chemical,’” he said in an email. “Everything we did was organic.”

Today Smallwood is the executive director of the Rodale Institute, which works to create new sustainable and organic food production models for the world to follow. Smallwood has watched organic farming evolve and grow over the years, mainly  via dedicated small-time farmers in pockets across the country. When Walmart announced plans to open a new line of super-cheap organic foods, Smallwood's reaction was mixed. Like many Smallwood recognized the potential for Walmart--the nation's biggest grocer-- to expand the organic foods model. But, while some food justice advocates have welcomed the move as it promises to make organic foods available to the masses, Smallwood says there is a good reason organics are priced the way they are. He fears lowering the price of organic foods would fail to reflect their true production costs, and Walmart organics could ultimately threaten the greater organic farming world.

After a 20 year career as a basketball coach in Ohio, Smallwood took over an organic farm in Kent, Connecticut.

“I drove oxen instead of using a tractor,” he said. “In my last year there, we used about 43 gallons of gas for the entire year.”

At the time, this made Smallwood part of a small sector of farmers—many of them ‘hippies’—who refused to use what they recognized to be harmful chemicals on their crops.

When he left the farm, Smallwood worked in a small organic market called MOM’s (My Organic Market). Then, Whole Foods recruited him to help 40 stores divert their waste from the landfill, and source food locally—a move that was unprecedented at the time.

Smallwood has seen huge expansions in the organic food production, particularly in the last decade. What started as a niche trend is now a booming billion dollar  industry, held together primarily by a network of small farms that provide food to local community sources.

“Ten years ago, the organic industry was an $11.7 billion industry,” he said. “At the end of 2012 it was up to $31.5 billion.  Every year organic sees double digit growth.  The growth has been amazing and when we talk with policy makers in D.C. now, for instance, it’s no longer the image of a small organic farmer with four acres and a hog. This is mainstream now—this is an industry worth over $31.5 billion.”

There's a Right Way and a Wrong Way to Do Organic Farming

When you think about it, the term ‘organic farming’ is a misnomer. Really, we should be saying “chemical farming” to describe farming practices that uses pesticides and other toxic concoctions, and just plain “farming” to describe organic practices, sans chemicals. Instead, chemicals are the norm in the agriculture world—so much so that farming without them is the weird, “alternative,” method with labeling requirements to boot.

Prior to the 1920s, “organic” was the only agriculture because chemical pesticides and soil amendments had yet to be invented. After World War II, researchers figured out that chemicals designed for use as nerve gas during the war could also kill insects. This changed the game. Farmers rushed to get ahold of the new miracle sprays that promised a pest-free crop, year round. Giant commercial farms, today's Big Ag factory farms, developed around the use of pesticides—which they still rely on today.

Studies have, of course, revealed that dousing our food in toxic chemicals isn’t by any means benign. According to the Environment Protection Agency, as well as countless other researchers, chemical pesticides pose significant risks tohuman health as well as the environment. Pesticides are linked with cancer and other illnesses, and as they seep into the soil they pollute nearby trees and watersheds, and wreak havoc on soil quality as well as animal life.  Several animal and insect “pests,” (and weeds) have developed resistance to various pesticides, so farmers have increased the pesticide doses. This increases the amount of pesticides that seep into foods that people ingest.

Smallwood noted that growing food with "toxic chemicals, the dominating method, wastes and destroys the soil, which has serious repercussions down the line.

“For every bushel of corn grown conventionally in Iowa, two bushels of soil are lost," he said. "Healthy biological soil sequesters carbon and other greenhouse gases. ...  In the long run, growing and eating organically contributes to the wellness of our soil, which is the stomach of the Earth.  All the biota, the microscopic life in the soil, that’s where the nutrient exchange takes place, like in our own gut.”

As early as the 60s some people became skeptical of pesticides and demanded research into their potential hazards. Studies trickled in and stacked up to support the skeptics’ concerns. One by one, small-time farmers deserted pesticides for organic methods. This was the birth of the organic farming movement.

At first, only so-called “crunchy, hippie farmers” were growing organic. Organic food is more expensive than non-organic by nature, because, as Smallwood explains, conventional food is priced artificially low, meaning the prices in the grocery store don’t reflect the actual costs.

“What we see from Big Ag, from the chemical [agriculture] industry, is that the profits are privatized, but the losses are made public,” he said. “So when the pesticides and herbicides contaminate the local watersheds, and people and animals get sick, and then those chemicals from Iowa wash into the Gulf of Mexico and create a dead zone where nothing can live. Who pays for that?  The public.  In economics, that’s called an ‘externality.’  If you were to calculate the costs of those cleanups and add them into the cost of conventional food, there would be no comparison.”

Today, because they do not dominate the market, the price of organics is prohibitive for many. In recent years “organic” has developed a reputation for being an upscale, elitist option—even a luxury good if you ask Fox News.  

“What was once considered ‘fringe’ is now being called ‘elitist,’” said Katherine Paul, director of development and communications for the Organic Consumers Association (OCA).

Walmart Organics?

In what it claims is an effort to close this gap and bring organics to all, Walmart has teamed up with Wild Oats to produce super-cheap organic foods. The partners promise to save customers “25 percent or more when comparing Wild Oats to national brand organic products.*

While some food advocacy groups are celebrating the Walmart-Wild Oats partnership, people who know the ins and outs of organic production remain largely skeptical.

Paul says while OCA welcomes the greater distribution of organic produce, they caution against the race to the bottom when it comes to pricing.

“Walmart has a history of driving down price to the lowest in the market,” she said. “This has proven to be not conducive to producing products the right way, or paying fair wages to those who do produce products using high-quality ingredients and processes.”

She said in order for organic farmers to survive, prices for organic produce should reflect what it actually costs to grow and distribute their food.

“We fear that producers, squeezed on price, may resort to substituting high-quality organic ingredients for similar but inferior ingredients, sourced from China, where organic standards are not as rigorous as they are in the US”

Tom Casey, CEO of Wild Oats, says the company will collaborate closely with “a select group of manufacturers who share Wild Oats’ commitment to making organic products available and affordable,” but would not name those manufacturers. He said Wild Oats and Walmart will be able to achieve lower costs by making the supply chain from farmer to consumer more efficient.

“The organic food industry is one of the least efficient product chains. It’s highly fragmented throughout the chain,” he said in an email. “What we’re doing by partnering with Walmart and leveraging their world class distribution is lowering those costs between the farm and consumer.  Example: Tomatoes. There are at least five steps involved between the tomato on the farm and the jar of sauce on the shelf. What we’re doing will reduce the cost of those steps and bring the product to consumers at a more affordable price.”

When asked, Casey did not specify which farms would source its food, but said their focus was on sourcing food in the US as much as possible. They would, however, purchase some of the food internationally.

“We select our manufacturers based on their ability to deliver the highest quality standards required by the Wild Oats brand,” he said.  “Whenever possible, we source US-based manufacturers; however, in cases where we can’t find a domestic partner able to meet quality standards for a particular product or ingredient, we will look outside of the US.  At this time, we only have two international partners – one in Italy (pasta) and one in Canada.”

Smallwood said sourcing food from outside the US could lower the demand from more local organic farming communities.

“[W]e know that whenever Walmart does anything, it has a huge impact,” he said. “So they have the opportunity to do good in a major way.  But there is a very good reason that organic prices are higher than conventional food.”

When asked to respond to concerns that their partnership could out-price smaller organic farmers, Casey said only that “it’s too soon to predict the impact on specific farmers.” He insisted their partnership with Walmart is, “overall” a “strongly positive development for organic farming in the US.”

In a Rodale News interview, Todd J. Kluger, vice president of marketing for Lundberg Family Farms, called the idea of cutting organic prices by a quarter a “fantasy.” Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, said Wal-Mart's cost-cutting drive could undermine the ethical values of organic farming.

“If the company ‘Walmart-ed’ organics and approached the industry sector as they do in many business lines, this would be quite destructive,” Kastel said in the Rodale News interview. “One of the ways they lower price and maximize profits is by focusing on imports and relying on giant, industrial organic factory farms. It's not compatible with organics, which is a values-based and ethics-based industry. One of the reasons people are willing to pay more is that they think they're supporting a different ethic, a different animal husbandry model, and that family farmers are being fairly compensated.”

Smallwood encouraged Walmart and Wild Oats to look into the organic food models already in place.

“We hope that Walmart’s goal is to build healthy soil that creates healthy food, and ultimately, healthy people,” he said. “So if that’s what their plan is, that could be good in a very big way.  Again, when they do good, they can do a huge amount of good.  On behalf of Rodale Institute, we offer our help and guidance to Walmart as they come over to the organic side.  We want to welcome them and show them how to do it right.”

April M. Short previously worked as drugs editor at AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @AprilMShort