Friday, September 08, 2006

Wal-Mart's Proving the Organic Lobby Irrelevant

The organic food movement needs help. Posted online this week is a story alleging that the Bush administration is threatening to authorize a list of synthetic ingredients in certified organic food appeared on the Your Organics site, a self proclaimed "Authority Site for Organic News, Information, Resources, Tips & Goodies".

Corporate America (Kraft, Wal-Mart, & Dean Foods) along with the USDA and the not so smart members of Congress, are trying to lower the organic standards and gain control therby putting our organic standards at risk. A Bush appointee is drafting a list of synthetic ingredients that would be allowed organic production. To make matters even worse these proposed “regulatory” changes will slim down any future discussion and input pulicly (sic) and get rid of the National Organic Standards Board’s (NOSB) traditional lead jurisdiction in setting the organic standards.

The article goes on to urge readers to action by signing an Organic Consumers Association (OCA) petition - not against synthetic chemicals in food (which I gladly would have signed) - but rather for the boycott of organic milk producers that allegedly employ factory farming techniques. On that page is no source material for the allegations; however, there is a link to a piece on grass-fed (not organic) cows for beef production.

Meanwhile on the OCA site another article puts forward opinions against Wal-Mart entering the organic market because it will pose a risk to small farmers and represents a social justice issue.

But while there are potential upsides to Wal-Mart's move, it also offers plenty of reasons to worry............an organic Wal-Mart could do "more harm than good" because of the changes it will bring about in the organic food industry....Though Wal-Mart, like Whole Foods, has agreed to source some products locally, most family-scale organic farmers will not supply big-box retailers directly. But many farmers will nonetheless struggle to meet Wal-Mart's price, in order to supply competing retailers or simply hang on to customers. "Every farmer has to compete because Wal-Mart is in every market," explains Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, a progressive research group that advocates for small farmers. "From an economic justice standpoint," he adds, Wal-Mart's plan to go more aggressively organic is "a disaster" because it could prove ruinous for so many family farms.

I support local production and small business at every opportunity, but so called progressives who are condemning Wal-Mart for offering organics at an affordable price to a greater number of families are committing a far greater breach of social justice. Namely, they are asking the poorer segments of society to pay the price for their utopian ideals by not supporting an initiative that would provide millions of lower income consumers with access to affordable, toxic free, food.

Each and every individual has the inherent right to food that is free of toxic chemicals, antibiotics and other harmful substances. This human concern should be the first and foremost value of the organic food industry, and as such they should be championing opportunities to make this goal a reality. Animal rights, worker's wages, fair trade issues, and labour rights are worthy, but separate issues, and by folding them into one all encompassing crusade, organic advocates are widdling away their own influence and proving themselves irrelevant in the debate about the future of organic food standards.

The more consumers who want to purchase toxin free food, the greater the power of market demand, and the more market forces will take over in the organics industry. Like them or hate them, Wal-Mart is listening to that market demand, and because of they are it is they who are in Washington defining the future of organic standards, while the organic food producers and industry groups remain at the sidelines.

The organic food producers should be in Wal-Mart's boardroom and on Capitol Hill working for the best way to make Wal-Mart's initiative a success, and to ensure that the highest possible standards of organic integrity are maintained in the move towards the mass market. But to do that they first need to let go of the utopian ideal that a litre of organic milk must qualify as fair trade, fair wage, violate no labour rights, is produced from pasture raised cattle, from local farmers, and infringes on no animal rights issues.

The average consumer cares about all of these issues, but the low to middle income families that Wal-Mart is serving care first about ensuring a healthy diet for themselves and their children. This demand is the reason why Wal-Mart is going organic. By failing to recognize that, the current organic lobby is squandering an opportunity to provide real progressive and environmental leadership, while alienating a whole new community of potential supporters.

Ultimately, environmentalists in this debate have to make a critical decision about themselves and the future of their cause. Is the cause to coddle our own egos by hiding from the real world in an isolated utopian ideal, where no injustices occur, while never finding a place or voice in the broader political world? Or is it to make pragmatic and tangible environmental progress by embracing new partnerships and moving into leadership positions where we can sit across from the key decision makers in public policy and directly influence it for the better?

I for one would rather see real progress than idealistic dreaming.

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