My post last week about the “Walmarting of Organics” brought me gobs of email. The pot was stirred! But, that is a good thing and what “Food for Thought” is all about.
Every subject or issue has many viewpoints and I for one like hearing them, kind of like playing devil’s advocate with myself.
One particular comment from a share on Facebook got me thinking……..
“Yeah, but when when Walmart is making more of an effort at making organic products accessible to lower income folks than the existing organic/small foods institutions that make small farms possible, I don’t think we should be pointing our fingers just at Walmart. I hate Walmart just as much as any other greeny, but let’s talk about the food system as a [w]hole, about capitalism, about someone’s hunger and nutritional needs being a market to sell your goods when we really should be collectivizing in a way that INCLUDES rather than excludes our society’s most vulnerable people.”
Looking at our food system as a whole is a daunting task and needs to be peeled away in layers like an onion. Not wanting to go into a detailed description of economic theories or by any means think that I can conduct a lesson on those theories; it is, however, well worth looking at.
Our main-stream food system is designed by corporate entities having a responsibility to shareholders, investors, and/or private owner. The bottom line is the almighty (or not so almighty) dollar. This system supposedly operates on the “free market or free enterprise” theory better known as capitalism.
Capitalism – in short definition is an economic system in which most of the means of production are privately owned, and production is guided and income distributed largely through the operation of markets. (merriam-webster) In print this definition looks good and fairly simple.
To further insure that the free market/enterprise operates fairly on the capitalistic system, laws and regulations as well as government oversight are in place. This is where it gets sticky!
There was a time in our country’s history where the laws and regulations were enforced. Anti-trust and monopoly come to mind. I don’t know about anyone else however I was raised by the belief that if you work hard you will do well, America is the land of opportunity, and so on!
Having lived in industrial contract chicken production and having heard comments such as it’s a free market from corporate types I can say that in the chicken industry there is no such thing. The chicken industry is owned and controlled by a handful of companies and it’s an exclusive club controlling the market.
Controlling the production (placement of chicken numbers on contract farms) determines the availability of the product for sale on the market and in turn controls what the market price will be. Furthering that control through flooding the market and driving prices down, squeeze competition out, we end up with a handful. Becoming fully integrated, whereby all aspects of the operation are owned and controlled by the same handful of corporations furthers a monopoly on the market and anti-competition.
Large-scale, integrated operations that increase efficiency and reduce production costs confer a benefit on firms that adopt them and may confer a benefit on consumers if the lower costs lead to lower product prices. In many cases the barrier is a result of anticompetitive behavior on the part of the firm –. (merriam-webster – relating to monopoly)
The chicken industry has been so successful that the majority of our food production system has adopted this model leading to a highly controlled mainstream food supply.
Industrialized food production is claimed to be the best method for feeding the masses including society’s most vulnerable people and in stamping out hunger and nutritional needs. This might be true, although I beg to differ. In adopting this model we have to consider the societal consequences created to maintain this method.
Industrial food production cannot sustain itself and is highly subsidized by the taxpayer – cheap grain prices for feed (farm subsidies); tax abatements (not paying a fair share of tax liability); public health (such as antibiotic resistance); environmental degradation (cleanup of industrial waste/manure). These are only a few of the ways we subsidize industrial food production which enables the handful of corporations to control the free market and reap the profits from the system.
Other types of food production such as organic, sustainable family farms, etc. are not subsidized. Production cost is actual therefore making prices higher in the marketplace.
In theory, one method of food production is supported and apparently favored by the government while other types of food production aren’t. Thusly, a skewed market exists.
Walmart’s adoption of an organic program is the first step toward creating an industrialized organic food production system. Relaxed (bastardized) organic standards have opened the doors for corporate agriculture to step in and produce maybe not so great food. You can bet your bottom dollar the industrialized organic food production system will follow the model of the industrialized chicken industry.
In addition, the Walmart organic move is for the purpose of drawing new high end customers. Economic indicators reveal that Walmart sales are stagnant. The company’s present customer base is society’s most vulnerable people and to spur company sales growth new customers need to be sought.
As an aside, the SNAP (food stamps) program is accepted in all grocery stores and most Farmer’s Markets. The availability of nutritious farm fresh, and/or organic food is inclusive of all through the program. The crinkle is that choice of food dollars spent leans toward not so great foods. Educational programs are lacking in providing society’s most vulnerable people information about wholesome and nutritious food availability and how to spend food dollars on better choices. Quite frankly, I don’t believe that anyone in this country should go hungry. There is no excuse for it and we as a society should be ashamed for allowing it to exist!
Back to the main point – Industrialized organic food production will become something that is no better than industrialized mainstream food production. It’s impossible to survive producing above cost therefore cost efficiencies of production will demand the need to cut corners. Industrialized food production does not sustain its environment and mass production creates uniformity with lack of care. Organic will mean nothing but will demand a premium at Walmart.
Yes, availability of organic will be inclusive of all. When all is said and done, I question what it will be that sits on the shelves of Walmart.