Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Quandry of Big-Box Organics

CrunchyCon points us to a Slate article on Whole Foods and its marketing of organic produce. The article notes that, while Whole Foods definitely does some good things on the sustainability front (the recent purchase of renewable energy offsets being one), all is not as it seems with WF's sale of organics. Attractive posters of organic farmers which tout small and local agriculture, as well as the energy-saving benefits belie the fact that most organic produce at the stores travels long distances from large, corporate organic farms in California. And then there's the issue of price: Whole Foods turns its organic products into luxury items for high-end shoppers. As the article notes,
When the Department of Agriculture established the guidelines for organic food in 1990, it blew a huge opportunity. The USDA—under heavy agribusiness lobbying—adopted an abstract set of restrictions for organic agriculture and left "local" out of the formula. What passes for organic farming today has strayed far from what the shaggy utopians who got the movement going back in the '60s and '70s had in mind. But if these pioneers dreamed of revolutionizing the nation's food supply, they surely didn't intend for organic to become a luxury item, a high-end lifestyle choice.
Slate writer Field Maloney even notes that Wal-Mart's recent announcement of a big move into organics may work out better for the average shopper:
Wal-Mart, with its simple "More for Less" credo, might do far more to democratize the nation's food supply than Whole Foods. The organic-food movement is in danger of exacerbating the growing gap between rich and poor in this country by contributing to a two-tiered national food supply, with healthy food for the rich. Could Wal-Mart's populist strategy prove to be more "sustainable" than Whole Foods? Stranger things have happened.
In either case, big box models are inevitably going to need large-scale corporate agriculture to support them -- is this ultimately a positive move towards a more sustainable food supply? I have a hard time seeing it -- I know there was a comment berating me last time I dealt with this issue (and I never responded to that comment -- wasn't ignoring it; just didn't get back to it), so fire away. But I have a hard time seeing large-scale organic production as a net gain, especially when it's supplying suburban-based big box stores. Is this, however, an appropriate transitional development towards a more sustainable food supply?

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