The local food bandwagon
Wal-Mart gets with the sustainability movement

by Ari LeVaux

Once reviled as a seven-letter word representing the myriad evils of capitalism, Wal-Mart has, in recent years, gone a bit greenish. Hybrid 18-wheelers haul Wal-Mart goods around the world’s roads. Windmills and other renewable energy sources supply power to many company stores. And now the world’s largest retailer has embraced the virtues of locally and sustainably produced food.

An recent corporate press release reads more like the mission statement of your local nonprofit food co-op than a communication from the world’s largest retailer: “Wal-Mart today launched its new global commitment to sustainable agriculture that will help small and medium-sized farmers expand their businesses, get more income for their products and reduce the environmental impact of farming, while strengthening local economies and providing customers around the world with long-term access to affordable, high-quality, fresh food.”

Wal-Mart’s definition of “local” means food that’s produced in the same state in which it is sold, and the company aims to have at least 9 percent of the produce sold in its U.S. stores meet this criteria by 2015. In other countries, the target percentage rises, to 30 percent in Canada and 50 percent in India and China. By 2015, the retail behemoth aims to have sold $1 billion worth of food from 1 million small and medium-sized farmers, while boosting those farmers’ incomes by 10 to 15 percent. The company will also make efforts to keep track of its suppliers’ use of pesticides, water and energy, and provide training to farmers to help them reduce their resource use. In addition to encouraging farming practices that produce more food with fewer resources and less waste, Wal-Mart also intends to assist its farmers in crop selection – including working with Southern tobacco farmers in hopes of convincing them to switch to blueberries.

These initiatives dovetail with Wal-Mart’s new Heritage Agriculture program, which focuses on encouraging the production of regional crops that have declined in recent years. Wal-Mart’s Ron McCormick, senior director for Strategic Food Sourcing, told Food Safety News that the economic decline of many rural farming regions was one thing that prompted Wal-Mart’s interest in establishing a connection with local food producers. Many areas throughout the United States that were once supported by thriving agricultural economies now have a Wal-Mart store or food distribution center, he says. “It made sense … if we could revitalize those economies, it would let us buy fresher product for our customers and save food miles. At the same time, we would be supporting many rural communities that support our stores,” he said.

It may seem out of character for Wal-Mart to act as an agent for positive change, but remember: the only thing Wal-Mart could do that would truly be out of character would be to knowingly undermine its bottom line. Like everything else it does, the promotion of sustainable, local agriculture is a calculated move to increase profits – if the corporate brainstem were to determine that reconciling quantum mechanics with Newtonian physics would boost sales of cheap bath towels, it would probably do that as well.

Compared to quantum mechanics, the economic advantages of local food are straightforward and easy to calculate.

The market for this kind of food is booming, and of course the company wants to cash in. But Wal-Mart is even more interested in the opportunities embodied in the popular locavore’s mantra that the average particle of food travels 1,500 miles from field to plate. This inefficiency provides a huge opportunity for the company with the world’s largest food supply chain to further streamline its operations. That’s where the Heritage Agriculture program comes in, encouraging the cultivation of crops that history has shown grow well in certain regions – especially areas that surround the company’s 40 food distribution centers. This builds long-term efficiency into Wal-Mart’s supply chain, saving money on transport and packaging while adding shelf-life to its perishable produce. The ensuing cost savings should help Wal-Mart improve the bottom line of its produce suppliers by 10-15 percent.

Another way the company hopes to increase the income of the farmers it works with is to deal directly with producers and eliminate middlemen. This seems innocuous enough at first glance, but it also sounds like one of the mechanisms behind Wal-Mart’s habit of killing Main Street businesses in countless towns that it has moved into. Cutting out the middleman and dealing directly with suppliers, while using its huge purchasing power as leverage, is how Wal-Mart has been able to infamously starve out its competition. It is possible that the neighborhood food co-op will lose both suppliers and customers to Wally World.

And while 9 percent local food certainly adds up to a lot of local food over the years, that leaves 91 percent of Wal-Mart’s food from distant factory farms. Wal-Mart continues to buy tomatoes from Immokalee, Fla., where some of the nation’s worst labor atrocities have been documented, including instances of what could qualify as slavery.

But despite the red flags, it’s hard to argue that Wal-Mart’s buying into local produce is a bad thing. Especially since in recent years many agriculture advocates have become frustrated with the lack of interest corporate grocers have shown toward locally grown food. Now that big bad Wal-Mart has jumped on board , hopefully other corporations will follow.

Wal-Mart’s new local food initiatives may be driven purely by the realization that saving the world is a good thing because it will help guarantee the survival of the global economy it wishes to dominate. But if so, well, maybe we should be hoping for Wal-Mart to decide that solving global warming is good for business as well. •