Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Frugal Foodie on a British Pound: Cheap Organic

One of the things I find most frustrating about the live below the line week, is that it seems to inevitably compromise my usual filter for purchasing food. Farmers markets are largely out of the question. Organic or ethically certified products sport a price-premium tag. Even local produce seems to cost an arm and a leg. So why shouldn't I be excited about the prospect of cheap organic food?

Well, our favourite food giant Walmart has plans for organic that suit its size. They are planning to sell a line of organically-produced, primarily pantry and canned goods, at around 25% below the average brand available now. The good news is that means the lower income tier of Walmart-serving areas can have access to products that avoid some of the nasty, synthetic chemicals found in conventional agriculture. In this sense, Walmart's move could be viewed as environmental and health justice and equality gain.

But, unfortunately, it's not that simple. A Grist article, of course, voiced one of my primary concerns: that large-scale organic will push out smaller farms. In order to reach the scale to which they aspire, Walmart will likely have to go big or go home. That means, rather than adhering to the underlying ethos of organic production - trying to work with and not against nature - this shift would require more industrial agriculture. Essentially, everything is the same as conventional, farms simply employ organic versions of all the fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc. And the small organic farms that try to adhere to the principles of organic by building soil health and mixing crop systems? I guess they're sort of out of luck.

However, that's not the only fish I have to fry. It is one thing for a behemoth of a supermarket chain to put in targets for a certain amount of organic wares, at a certain level of cheapcheapcheap. It is quite another to change the system in which all of this operates to actually achieve the social and environmental goals that were conceived by the organic movement. Maybe someone who understands economic progression better than I can explain how this move by Walmart will help reorient the incentives to produce and supply organically rather than under conventional methods. By undercutting prices of current organics, it seems to be just another way to get people to buy a product (perhaps placing undue strain on those actually growing the food), and not leveling the playing field of agriculture. 

Is that what we want? Just another choice on the grocery shelves. Or do we want a more equitable, less polluting, longer-term sustainable food system? I just can't see how Walmart is going to give us the latter.

NPR has another nice take on the Walmart decision.

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