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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.
 
 
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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.

“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.