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Why Walmart Is a Threat to Organic Food

Walmart will turn organic food into another low-cost input that shortchanges consumers, workers and the environment for a fast buck.

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Only after I decided to pursue freelance journalism fulltime, thereby joining the ranks of low-wage workers, did I enter a Walmart for the first time. It was in Southern California, in the spring of 2012, and I was trying to go easy on my wallet as I crammed my car with supplies before embarking on a cross-country reporting tour.

I reluctantly ventured inside a Walmart near San Diego, but I discovered immediately why its slogan, “Save Money, Live Better,” is a lifeline for the economically distressed. In the average superstore there’s a phenomenal 142,000 separate items at astonishingly low prices: button-down shirts for $10, a large bag of potato chips for a buck, a fat tube of toothpaste for two bucks, 25 cents for a metal fork, 10 oranges for a dollar. One former Walmart worker in California told me everyone he knew shopped there because, “Walmart is cheap as shit and it’s convenient.”

So when Walmart announced in April that it was invading organic turf by introducing the Wild Oats food line in 2,000 stores, some food-justice advocates were excited about the possibilities. They believe that Walmart's buying power, which accounts for a 33 percent share of groceries sold nationwide, will enable it to offer lower prices for consumers, expand the market for organic farmers, and lessen the use of toxic pesticides and global-warming fertilizers. It’s a classic win-win, showing how the free market can solve problems it helped create.

It’s wishful thinking. Alarm bells should be ringing now that Walmart is going organic. One Walmart executive explains it will “disrupt” the organic market by reducing inefficiencies and encouraging consolidation. Lower prices for consumers mean fewer organic farmers, declining farm incomes and agricultural wages, and remaining farmers will be forced to industrialize further to produce more goods at lower prices.

Walmart is so powerful it’s been termed a “monosopy,” meaning it can set prices for vendors. By bringing its practice of hammering suppliers to cut costs, quality and standards to organic it will tempt farmers to bend and break organic rules to pare expenses. If American farmers refuse to accept its dictates, Walmart can outsource production to Mexico, China and Chile as it’s done with manufacturing, and is already happening with organic food. Other retailers will probably take advantage of Walmart’s move by demanding lower prices from organic farmers and pocketing higher profits just because they can. This happened in the California grocery strike in 2003 when Safeway, Kroger and other chains slashed the wages and benefits of 59,000 unionized workers based solely on Walmart’s announcement it was going to build 40 supercenters in the state.

In terms of improving the dismal diet of most Americans, Walmart’s mastery of supply-chain logistics has been implicated as a cause of obesity. Many Wild Oats products are outright junk food or barely nutritious, including tortilla chips, heavily processed “skillet” meals, and cookies. Undercutting other retailers on the price of canned organic vegetables won’t change much. Poor diet is not due to a lack of access as 92 percent of Americans say they have “easy access to fresh affordable produce.” Government data in the mid-'90s found that a paltry 3 percent of Americans got the proper daily intake of vegetables and “at least 1 serving daily of a dark green or orange vegetable,” the most nutritious vegetables. It’s unlikely that dismal number has improved. A recent large-scale survey by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that vegetable consumption actually fell between 1988 and 2002, and another government study revealed “no significant change” from 2000 to 2009.