When 'organic' defeats its own purpose 

How the Wal-Marting of organics hurts us all

I was lucky to do my two years of training as a psychotherapist in Sonoma County, arguably the birthplace of the nation's growing taste for organic and local food.

Indeed, the facility where I worked had its own organic vegetable garden and the dining room was regarded as part of the therapeutic experience. The chef shopped the boutique growers in the area and the food was often a revelation to clients unaccustomed to the startling taste of food not purchased at the usual grocery store.

I remember one morning I was listening to a client complain about how numb her life felt. I took her into the sun-drenched garden and picked a squash blossom. I asked her to close her eyes and eat it. Smiling, her whole body came awake with this new sensation. I meant it mainly as a metaphor for the need to enrich life with new, simple experience. But I also know that food, depending on how it's grown and prepared, literally affects our day-to-day experience of the world as beautiful, bland or ugly.

And that's why I find the "Wal-Marting" of organic food so despicable. I cannot join my voice with others who preface their criticism of Wal-Mart's decision to get into the organic food business with pats on the back for making healthier food accessible to more people.

Wal-Mart represents much of what is ugly or soullessly bland about America. The company is infamous for its Machiavellian practices that drive competitors out of business and lower a community's wages. After effectively establishing a near-monopoly, the nation's second-largest employer then often raises prices, while maintaining low wages and poor benefits.

But, hey, they care enough about people to sell them an organic tomato at a discount!

Wal-Mart's decision to join the rapidly expanding organic market is purely about making money while painting a bit of green on a corporate face that has come under attack for its disregard of environmental concerns. They don't even attempt to cover up their reasoning.

"Organic agriculture is just another method of agriculture -- not better, not worse," Bruce Peterson, head of perishable food at Wal-Mart, told a New York Times reporter in a May 12 article. "This is like any other merchandising scheme we have."

The idea is to get more upper-income shoppers, who tend to value organic food, into the stores. Wal-Mart is retailing organics at a cost only about 10 percent higher than conventionally grown food. The store's enormous volume makes that possible.

But Michael Pollan, a writer for the New York Times Magazine and author of a book on organic agribusiness, notes in a June 4 article that Wal-Mart's entry into this new market will almost certainly perpetuate practices that are at odds with the original vision of organic farmers. For example, demand for organic milk has already caused agribusiness companies to apply the tactics of factory farming to organic milk production. Cows are herded into organic feedlots where they never eat grass -- just organic grain. Thus their milk satisfies federal standards for the organic label, even though it lacks essential nutritional ingredients, to say nothing of the misery caused the animals.

Wal-Mart eventually will likely purchase organic food from all over the world. (Whole Foods already does this.) Critics note that, while the food may be free of harmful pesticides, its importation adds to the energy crisis, in opposition to the notion of sustainability that underlies the conventional organic movement.

As the organic movement grows and becomes more attractive to big agribusiness, small farms will be priced out of the market and, in all likelihood, federal standards will be lowered. Lobbying is already intense. Then again, when Whole Foods recently came under severe criticism for ignoring local farmers, it set a new policy allowing store managers to do more business with them. In fact, the store also created a $10 million loan program for local farmers. But this policy was all an afterthought.

I have frequently bought pricey, often imported organic produce from Whole Foods and Publix. What I have most noticed is that its taste is rarely better than conventionally grown produce. Locally grown produce, which may or may not meet quirky federal standards as organic, is always the more flavorful choice. And I suspect it is healthier.

I see the Wal-Marting of organic food -- its transformation into a marketing scheme -- as another inflection of Americans' loss of taste and sense of beauty. The French, watching this happen in their own culture, now require their public schools to educate children in taste. Perhaps we should do the same.

CL's 2006 Food Issue


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