Organic Wal-Mart

by Rob Horning

7 September 2006


Wal-Mart’s move into organic food would seem to inevitably undermine the whole principle of going organic in the first place—after all the ideology of “organic” involves natural growth, human-scale farming, and diminished stress on the environment—not behemoth stores devoted to the proliferation of cheap, synthetic consumer goods, manufacturing needs with lower price points.  When “organic” is used in criticism (it was especially popular with literary New Criticism of the 1950s, from whence it trickled down into pop criticism) it is to suggest something unforced and unified by its conditions of origin, naturally evolved from the bottom up, not the product of elaborate calclulation or top-down schemetization. When applied to food the word is meant to evoke spontaneously generated relations among people in a farming village, not the most recent ruthless iteration of massive, heretofore inconcievable economies of scale. It seems like titanic irony just to put the words organic and Wal-Mart next to each other. After all, the cliched gripe about the company is that it comes to a small town and obliterates whatever businesses had sprung up organically in response to local demand. Moreover Wal-Mart leverages the efficiencies of globalization against small businesses, undoing the fabric of commerce that once wove a community together.

But that’s all ideology, you might say. Surely we can overlook that for the benefits Wal-Mart will provide in making organic food accessible to the masses—the company will make better quality food, made in more enivronmentally friendly ways, available to more people for cheaper. The people who eat organic as a means of conspicuous consumption might not like it, but is this not a good thing for the quintessential lower-middle class Wal-Mart shopper? Writing in The Nation Liza Featherstone sets up her article with a similar ruse, evoking the promise and the PR supporting the notion of a greenified Wal-Mart:

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.

Then Featherstone undermines this sunny notion with the underlying economic consequences: small producers bullied out, wasteful transportation from large farms to various distribution points, top-down imposition of standards, quality sacrificed to price, etc. Brad Plumer adds the likelihood of Wal-Mart using its lobbying clout to change the USDA’s definition of organic to suit its purposes. He also sums up the whole conundrum of large-scale organicism nicely: “Wal-Mart’s whole strategy is to slash prices by outsourcing many of its costs onto other entities—the environment, say, or its workers. The idea behind organic farming, by contrast, is to make the consumer pay all of those costs, since cheap products aren’t cheap when others are shouldering the cost. Expecting that these philosophies can happily coexist seems improbable, to say the least.” The conflicting rationales stem from different priorities—Wal-Mart assumes price (and behind that rational maximization of utility at the margin) is the overriding priority in all cases, the only conceivable definition of value (which is why they are so noticeably indifferent to externalities). Your typical fervent organic food lover prioritizes the externalities—the suffering of animals, the stewardship of the land, the distance food travels to their table, etc, and is willing to have them priced back in so as to be avoided. This concern is often depicted as moral vanity, futile and burdened with the ulterior motives of self-promotion and self-satisfaction, mainly because such critics have bought into the idea that purchasing power is all important—the critical metric of personal freedom—and anything that can be done to extend the poor’s purchasing power (even if it comes at the expense of the planet or the poor’s own ability to make a fair wage) is justified.

Ultimately I suspect this mainstreaming of “organic” will make the concept meaningless, and a new word to mean what organic did a few years ago will have to be coined and standardized.  Perhaps this will mean the world has been edged a little bit further in the direction progressives want it to go, but it may end up being a case study in how a progressive notion is neutralized by its being reduced to something fashionable to be disseminated on a mass scale—or rather why consumerist programs don’t make for very good means for conducting progressive politics.

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