If you’ve not yet heard, Walmart has announced plans to release an affordable line of organic goods in partnership with Wild Oats. It sounds like every organic-lover’s dream — affordable organic foods. The prices are estimated to undercut organic brand-names by as much as 25%. Walmart even claims that their organic line will sell at a similar price point as their non-organic products. Wow! Theoretically, it would also usher in lower market costs all around for such products, due to increased supply and competition. It’s exactly what we’ve been waiting for! — or is it?
Walmart claims that organic foods currently command a premium because there isn’t as much supply to meet the once small demand. By upping the supply under their guidance, they believe organic goods could be shipped and sold for much cheaper. Which is true, up to a point. There may be a small premium associated with organic foods, because there is less supply and a relatively small (but still ever-growing) demand. The truth is, however, truly organic, sustainably farmed foods require more effort. That’s why they cost more. They receive drastically less subsidies from the government than conventional farms, which reflects in their respective price tags.
Organic farmers also have higher standards that require more labor with less yield. That’s why one organic tomato can cost the same as two or three non-organic tomatoes. Plus, organic certification is also a very pricey process. Farmers at your local farmer’s market aren’t necessarily charging more for their certified organic produce simply because they can. It is because they must to make any profit from their hours and hours of labor and overhead that organic farming entails. Although increased supply could lower prices a bit, it’s hard to believe that Walmart and its farmers can profit long-term with their proposed low prices along with all of that in contention.
Many are concerned that Walmart will cut corners on their organic goods to widen profit margins. Sacrificing the sustainability of the organic farming industry is one. It is feared that Walmart will buy out and promote small farmers to follow the bare minimum of requirements to boost profits, rather than enabling farmers to create the highest quality product in the most sustainable way possible. This could lead to slash-and-burn farming and business practices, which would deplete small farmers and their soils within a matter of years while Walmart literally moves on to greener pastures. It is hoped that Walmart would take more care to not decimate the livelihood of its smaller suppliers and send a good chunk of the profits in their direction, but that doesn’t seem to be their M.O.
Regardless of the practices they may or may not employ, what Walmart doesn’t get is that organic food is not just a commodity from which to profit. It’s not even just about its health benefits. Organic is important because its rewards are cyclical, not unidirectional. Sustainable organic practices like integrating various types of produce and higher welfare standards, as opposed to the widespread practice of vast monocultures or cramped barns, keep the land and creatures nutritionally rich and fertile for the future. It benefits the environment, as well as native animals, our bodies, and our local economies. Sometimes, it’s not just about slashing price tags.
Ready or not, Walmart is introducing Wild Oats pantry staples into only about half of its US stores within the next month, to ensure that it will be able to supply all 4,000 in the near future. Target, eager to follow suit, is expanding its organic presence as well. What are your thoughts on these industrial moves towards affordable organics?