Walmart Stores last week announced its intention to purchase a certain percentage of its produce locally. There’s more: they’re going to develop a sustainability index for labels, so the customer can choose more sustainably raised items. Wow! Is this great, or what?
How about “what.” Apart from my total, deep-rooted and far-flung cynicism about Walmart, (where I refuse to shop, and which I consider part of the Global Axis of Evil*) consider:
Walmart has enormous purchasing power, created by evil geneticists. No – bestowed upon it by consumers who care about nothing but low prices. To save a buck, they endure chaotic stocking, narrow brand selection, employees with pond-life IQ, and depressing acres of useless and poor-quality merchandise. This has made Walmart the US’s largest grocer. Scary.
Its purchasing power allows it virtually to dictate prices to its suppliers. So, Walmart is going to buy as many of its tomatoes or apples locally as it can ? and still offer them to the public at “Lowest prices…always!” ? How will that affect the local price when other local farmers take their plums, or zucchini to market? Will customers tell us, “Shoot, I can get ‘local’ zucchini at Walmart for $1.89/lb” ?
Cause you see, Walmart blithely and irrelevantly defines “local” as “within the same state.” Hunh? Since when? I know farmers in Northern Ohio who, every Spring, bust their tails to get the earliest sweet corn to Market. That means sowing in April, if they can, and if unsuccessful, all they lose is the time and seed. But if they escape frost and have sweet corn to market by June, they can sell 2 ears for a dollar, instead of four.
Now what happens when Wal-mart, by virtue of its buying power, brings truckloads of Southern Ohio (different growing zone) sweet corn to Northern Ohio in May, at 4/$1? And, okay, how much will it pay those Southern Ohio farmers, lured by the promise of Walmart volume for their output?
That raises a question the Eating Public knows little about: contract production. This is the mechanism by which large food suppliers assure themselves adequate quantities of perishable fruits and vegetables. Basically, they enter into “output contracts” whereby they agree in advance to purchase an entire crop at a fixed price, for a specified quality. The grower is relieved of uncertainty as well. It sounds like, and could be, a good deal for both.
One problem is that when the crop is ready for harvest, sellers are at the mercy of buyers. What else are they going to do with 3 tractor-trailer loads of harvested green beans? (Pithy Grant County comment: “…and you’ve done paid your Mexicans!…”) In 1998, Archer-Daniels-Midland (if you listen to NPR, yeah, that’s “ADM – Supermarket to the World”) paid $25 million in fines for bribing produce inspectors to low-grade contract produce. The grower, stuck with agribusiness quantities of perishable produce, would have no choice but to take the lower price. You think Walmart is above such tactics?
(And, you think an Organic Certification inspector is less corruptible than a produce grader? Ask yourself how such an inspector managed to overlook feedlots and a slaughterhouse uphill from vegetable plots, the year that Organic Agribusiness brought us “Organic Spinach That’s Not Safe to Eat.”)
The other unsettling aspect of contract production is that it raises the ugly prospect of local farmers scrambling to underbid each other for Walmart’s volume of business. What what happens to “organic and sustainable” then? …and if we’re talking meat suppliers, to the poor animals?
(Yes, farmers get caught up in the trap of “grow more and sell cheaper…” than the next guy. The brother of Kentucky’s literary icon Wendell Berry, State Senator John Berry, tells of a local guy who goes around with a truck selling watermelons. He buys them for a dollar and sells them for 50 cents. He keeps telling everybody, “if he could just get a big enough truck, he could make money on ‘em.”)
Ten or twelve years ago, as we watched the USDA and the Big Five who control 80% of our food supply latch onto “organic” a lot of us began using for preference “sustainable.” We’ve resisted standards for sustainability, which would benefit (and be susceptible of manipulation by) those giant middlemen. And now Walmart is going to take up (and presumably define for itself, as blithely and irrelevantly as it did “local’) “sustainable.”
Well, dammit, they can’t have “sustainable”!! That is not rhetorical defiance: I mean, they literally can’t. Because one (often overlooked) central tenet of sustainability is that a farming operation must make enough to sustain the farmer. By paying fair prices for produce from sustainable farming activities, you yourselves contribute to sustainability. And we love you for it.
But you can’t have that satisfaction, and Wal-mart-low prices too. Just because they slap a “sustainable” label on something, don’t think “Wow, I can shop at Walmart and still support my local farmers.” That’s not how it works.
*No, not that one. We have our own Global Axis of Evil: Walmart, Disney, ADM, Cargill, Conagra, Tractor Supply, Procter & Gamble, the IMF, and we’re accepting nominations for others