A laughing baby is covered in baby food. He’s making a gushy mess, as babies do, but having a grand time. A magic word reassures us–before we’ve had a chance to worry–that the food itself is wholesome. That word, of course, is “organic.” More surprising, to many viewers of this advertisement, will be the origin of this virtuous feast: Wal-Mart. This summer, the mega-retailer launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign with an irresistible promise: “Introducing Organics at the Wal-Mart price.” The commercial, which cannily plays to mothers’ worries about how pesticides and additives may affect their children’s health, has run on network and cable TV; a print version will appear in Parenting, Real Simple, Self and Cooking Light. Already one of the nation’s leading organics vendors, Wal-Mart announced this past spring its intention to enter the market far more aggressively, to double its inventory and eventually offer organics at only 10 percent above the price of conventional food.
Food bearing the government’s organic label can be, for low- and middle-income shoppers, prohibitively expensive. That’s why, to many observers, an “organic Wal-Mart” represents the democratization of healthier–and better-tasting–food. Bob Scowcroft of the Organic Farming Research Foundation argues, too, that environmentalists should cheer Wal-Mart’s move, which will “turn hundreds of thousands of acres” now being farmed conventionally to organic. “Think of the tonnage of toxins and carcinogens which will disappear from the earth,” he says. Scowcroft also points to research by the Swiss government showing that organic farming can reduce global warming–actually drawing nitrogen and carbon from the atmosphere. Like the retailer’s push for fuel-efficient trucking, Wal-Mart’s entry into the organic sector could turn out to be another example of how one decision by this company–however market-driven–might do tremendous good, simply because of its scale.
But while there are potential upsides to Wal-Mart’s move, it also offers plenty of reasons to worry. To advocates of local economies, like Judy Wicks, founder of Philadelphia’s White Dog Cafe and co-chair of the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, an organic Wal-Mart could do “more harm than good” because of the changes it will bring about in the organic food industry. For example, she cites Wal-Mart’s likely impact on many small farmers. In other industries Wal-Mart’s aggressive competition has proved devastating to small producers, from TV manufacturers to conventional pork farmers. 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.
Some of the concern over small farmers may be sentimental, a remnant of our national identity as a land of Jeffersonian citizen-yeomen. And some detect, in the progressive reaction to Wal-Mart’s organic ambitions, a whiff of countercultural cliqueishness. Gary Hirshberg, president of Stonyfield Farm, which supplies organic yogurt to Wal-Mart, is a former hippie who lived on an organic solar- and wind-powered farm in the 1960s and ’70s. He dismisses Wal-Mart critics in the organic movement as “activists who don’t want to think of organic as a segment. They think of it as a lifestyle.” To Hirshberg, organic Wal-Mart is a sign of the movement’s success, and those who don’t like it are elitist purists, dedicated to their own marginality.