Recently, I wrote an article for the magazine -- sorry, it's not available on the web unless you subscribe -- on Wal-Mart's recent decision to become a major player in the organic food business. The Cornucopia Institute, a progressive group that advocates for family-scale farming, released a report today showing that an "organic Wal-Mart" may indeed be more Mean than Green.
According to the report, the company has a contract to source milk from Aurora Organic Dairy, which is one of the worst industrial organic offenders -- using cattle confined in feedlots, with little if any access to pasture. Aurora is also being investigated for a number of other violations of the organic standards. While there are plenty of problems with milk sold by Horizon (also available at Wal-Mart) at least Horizon gets about half of its milk from family-scale farms; Aurora's is 100% factory farm.
Cornucopia also reports that Wal-Mart is indeed, as many observers predicted, sourcing some of its organic products from China -- canned chick peas and other beans, for example. This could certainly be good for the Chinese, as the demand may cause many acres of conventional farmland to go organic, cleaning up the surrounding groundwater and soil. But it's also troubling because shipping products such a distance, when they could be grown locally, is a waste of energy, and exacts a formidable toll on the ozone layer; such a practice hardly meets the ideal of sustainability that many customers are seeking when they look for that organic label. Cornucopia also found that Wal-Mart was selling two brands of "organic" infant formula containing synthetic additives that have not yet been reviewed by the National Organic Standards Board, and that have been processed with hexane, a scary neurotoxin.
In other Wal-Mart news, the company is trying to counter its political troubles -- from site fights to "Fair Share" laws to living wage ordinances -- through "voter education" within its own workforce. Of course the company insists that the information it's giving workers is nonpartisan, but in fact, very few of the politicians that publicly criticize the company are Republican, and the company is clearly responding to recent attacks by Democrats hoping to rally their base. A Wal-Mart department manager -- who wished to remain anonymous -- told me the other day that it might backfire. "Oh, of course they want us to vote Republican," she explains, "but you know, I have been talking to some associates and just the mere fact that Wal-Mart is trying to coerce them... is making them vote the other way."