Last week I wrote about Walmart’s recently announced $1 billion initiative to begin sourcing more produce from local small- and medium-sized farms. (In the U.S. it aims to double the amount of local produce it sells, to 9 percent, by 2015.) I suggested that the company had not been entirely forthcoming about the details of its plan, and consequently posed a handful of questions for the world’s largest retailer.
I wanted to know some basic things: how Walmart defines “local”; whether it intends to pay small farmers full value for their produce; and if the new initiative might end up running any farmers out of business.
Well, I asked, and Kory Lundberg, Walmart’s Senior Manager of Sustainability Communications was gracious enough to respond to our questions in the comments section of the post. (No sarcasm here; try getting anything even close to a real answer out of McDonald’s, for example.) Mr. Lundberg is saying all the right things; that’s his job. His answers will seem vague and largely unsatisfactory to many of us who are skeptical of Walmart’s priorities and its reputation for squeezing suppliers and eliminating competition, but we can’t possibly know whether these promises are empty or not until Walmart makes good on them. Or doesn’t.
But he did address most of our questions point by point (follow the above link and scroll down to the comments to read his full response). “Local”, he says, means produce grown and sold in the same state (I’d argue otherwise, but that’s a fine point), and suppliers will be dealt with more directly and paid a fair price (in fact, the initiative promises to increase the incomes of these farmers by 10 to 15 percent). Additionally, Walmart will track the progress of the initiative as part of its Global Sustainability Report.
While it’s hard to genuinely root for the biggest mega-corporation on the planet, it can’t be denied that Walmart is uniquely positioned to affect the global food system. (Its annual sales of more than $400 billion rival the GDP of Sweden, which would rank it at about the 20th largest national economy if it were a country.) If Walmart can, as it says it will, increase the profits of local small farmers, reduce food miles, food waste, and the use of water, energy, fertilizers, and pesticides, all while providing a sustainability index to help customers make responsible choices, and do this without upsetting or overtaking the regional food systems that it endeavors to join, then we really have something to look forward to.
Still, let’s not get too excited. (And let’s remember that BP was marketing itself as a company big on alternative energy.) The big and so far unanswerable questions are these:
1. Can decent food be made profitable enough for multinationals to choose to sell it in place of – not to put too fine a point on it – CRAP?
2. And can they do this ethically? That is, treating labor, the earth, animals, and consumers fairly?
The obvious answer, and the one justified by history is, “Of course not.”
And yet if there is not hope in this arena … well, does anyone believe we’re going to completely re-make the food system? That seems if anything even less likely. Which leads to a debilitating form of pessimism that does none of us any good.
Whether we shop at Walmart, a farmers’ market, or somewhere in between, creating a truly sustainable food system is in the best interests of all humans. (It might not be in the best interests of all corporations which, even if the Supreme Court believes otherwise, is not the same thing.) If Walmart can help get us there without leaving tattered local food economies in its wake, then good for them and good for us. We’ll just have to wait and see. Certainly the company’s stated intent – sincere or otherwise – is welcome. It’s better, as they say, than a kick in the head, and it’s far better than Walmart’s history would indicate.
(Photo Credit: [Melissa Pauquette] via Flickr)