Bookmark and Share November 8, 2009 - Dave Mulder

Organic food at Walmart: Good or evil?

When consumers started asking for organic grocery options, big retail stores like Walmart obliged and began providing it. The reason is simple market logic: If your customers want something, you better have it or risk losing business to a competitor.

Feeding organic products to the Walmart beast is an interesting paradox. In the traditional sense, organic food is grown and sold locally with rapt attention given to quality. To meet the demands of a huge buyer like Walmart, you need to have an industrialized system of production.

This is the line in the sand between little, traditional organic and big, industrial organic. There is a substantial difference, and it’s one that many real food-ists care about.

For example, Vin Miller over at Natural Bias recently wrote a piece about Walmart “degrading the quality or organic food”. Miller reasons that Walmart’s size gives them tremendous economy-of-scale leverage over producers, forcing organic manufacturers to accept the lowest possible fee for their goods and in turn encouraging those manufacturers to cut corners within their own shop.

Miller’s advice is that if you’re going to buy organic, don’t do it at Walmart (or, presumably, any other large retail shop).

While I think Miller makes a strong argument, I don’t believe the fault lies in the business practice of Walmart. Rather, this problem is endemic of industrial food production as a whole. Market logic is at odds with the philosophy of traditional, organic food production and there really can be no resolution between the two.

As long as the rules favor large companies like Walmart, there will be a need for industrialized food production.

But as consumers, we can still make wise decisions with our food dollar (I spend most of mine at farmer’s markets and food cooperatives).

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