Friday, June 02, 2006

Wal-Mart Goes Organic - No Victory for Greens Though

Wal-Mart indicated a significant expansion in their organic line of groceries last month, and a plan to price organics just 10 percent above conventional food (see previous posting here).

The move will likely lead to an explosion in the market share for organic products, a boon to organic farmers, a windfall in terms of healthy consumer choices, and a sharp reduction in the volume of antibiotics and pesticides that millions of people are exposed to in their foods. Unfortunately, what all progressives should be hailing as a victory may ultimately result in environmentalists alienating themselves from future debates due to their chronic inability to see a difference between pragmatics and ideals by embracing an obvious victory, imperfect as it may be.

Case in point, there has been sharp criticism from some environmental commentators following this announcement citing Wal-Mart's pricing strategy, the potential globalization of organic food production, and the industrialization of the organic farming process as problems. On price they've specifically noted that,
"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."
Nobody will argue the facts surrounding industrial agriculture and its effects on various social, environmental and political problems; however, the fact remains that the single greatest barrier to the widespread adoption of organic foods is price.

Come the bottom line, most people cannot afford to pay 20-25% more than the next available option for food. Given a fair opportunity, no person would choose to consume chemical additives, pesticides and antibiotics through their food let alone expose their children to such substances. However, for millions of North Americans their is little choice so long as the price for organics remains out of reach. Scant financial resources need to be stretched between far too many priorities including expensive rent, clothing for themselves and children, transportation costs and, if you live in the States, on the exorbitant cost of health care. Without lower prices, society's poor are deprived of the opportunity to benefit from organic food choices.

Unfortunately, what critics are failing to do is to step away from their ideals and recognize that victory and progress usually come in small steps and not through overnight and wholesale changes to society. Yes, it would be better if we could overhaul Wal-Mart's poor business practices, end the inequalities from globalized trade, and ensure that industrial farming practices are prohibited from (further) use in organic foods production. But those assurances are not going to come in one single change. In all likelihood, they will need to be won each step of the way, each issue at a time.

On a broad level, people will be far better served by embracing the opportunity to make pesticide and antibiotic free food more readily available to every consumer. The remaining issues can be fought for and one on a future battle field.

For the present time, the organic and environmental community would serve their constituencies, and the public as a whole, in a far better way by hailing this substantial victory and using it to create momentum for further change, rather than alienating themselves from potential new constituents and the decision makers who they will ultimately need to work with in achieving the next steps of sustainable change.

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