America needs millions more small farmers. The imperatives are economic, political, and physical. We need food relocalization, our own structures, our own farmers’ markets, garden markets, CSAs, distribution networks. We need to organize, manage, and of course own all this ourselves, completely outside the corporate system. One word used to encompass all of this is sustainability.
It’s not just corporate production which is destroying our democracy and health, but corporate distribution. Therefore a prospect like Walmart allegedly emphasizing local foods
is a great danger.
Gandhi famously said, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” He didn’t add, “then they try to co-opt you”, but it goes in there somewhere between ridicule and where we win. It proves we’re on the right track, that what we’re doing has “profit” potential, and even better that it’s a significant rival to corporate practice.
Walmart’s plan, called “Heritage Agriculture” in honor of Orwell and of George Bush initiatives like Healthy Forests and Clear Skies, purports to invest in regional and local food (“training and infrastructure for small and medium size farmers, particularly in emerging markets”), to develop a “sustainability index”, and to double (to 9%) the proportion of food it sells which is “local”. This expands upon the “green” initiative launched in 2005.
Since this is Walmart we don’t need to speculate on whether its intentions are benevolent. Obviously the intent is to co-opt the terms “sustainable” and “local” and commodify them, or at least discredit them. By definition sustainability means, among other things, resiliency, redundancy, slack, and independence. But here “sustainable” will be revalued in corporate terms of sustainably maximized production and profit, given some Potemkin criteria. That’s what this “sustainability index” is all about
“Over time, may not need the U.S. government setting standards for how we plant, spray and harvest. We will just have to follow Walmart’s rules,” noted a farmer who has been in discussions with Walmart officials.
We could already imagine what it’ll mean for farmers to be at the mercy of Walmart’s rules. But we have more detailed evidence. I’ll just go ahead and call this the “quote of death”:
Certainly, Walmart is not alone in the rush to “go green” in the U.S. and around the globe. Other major farm and food players, like Cargill, Monsanto, Syngenta, General Mills, Kelloggs, Pepsico, Mars, Dairy Management Inc., and Stonyfield Farms are also on the hunt for measurable sustatinability goals.
They joined Walmart in funding the Sustainability Consortium, which plans to develop “transparent methodologies, tools and strategies to drive a new generation of products and supply networks that address environmental, social and economic imperatives, according to their web site. Ironically, the very farmers who might be most impacted by their benchmarks, are not part of the Consortium, where first tier membership costs $100,000 per year.
The Consortium, which is jointly managed by the University of Arkansas and Arizona State University and includes research from universities around the globe, has been developing an index which can be used to evaluate and measure sustainable practices on the farm and throughout the supply chain.
Eventually, this might lead to products in your local Walmart that are “scored” according to their level of sustainability, says Matt Kistler, the Senior Vice President of Marketing for Walmart and the man who previously served as Senior Vice President for Sustainability.
By definition you can’t be sustainable yet deeply entangled with any multinational, let alone proven enemies of humanity and the earth like Monsanto and Syngenta.
(Meanwhile we can imagine what kind of “training and infrastructure” program they have in mind “for small and medium size farmers, particularly in emerging markets”. It may not be as overtly ideological as the Chicago Boys or the Goldman Gals, but it’ll exemplify the same corporate imperatives.)
For Walmart, “sustainable” will be defined as grown and sold in the same state. Right there we can see how conceptually frivolous it is, since there’s zero scientific or practical basis for basing anything on the cockamamie borders of states.
A 2004 Counterpunch article by Yoshie Furuhashi used a Teamster’s organizing map of Wal-Mart distribution points to demonstrate that most states are already served by local Wal-Mart distribution centers. The term local, in other words, as a definition of ‘sustainable’ doesn’t require any transformation to existing Wal-Mart distribution patterns. It’s green washing at its most sophisticated.
So Walmart already covers the geography to the point that, according to their definition of “local”, this alleged initiative really won’t require them to change their existing practices at all.
Still, this could be at least a short term boost for economically beleaguered farmers. They need as many lucrative markets as possible, so it would be dubious for anyone to argue from a political perch that they shouldn’t commit to Walmart, that they should resist Walmart. But I would just tell them the same thing I’d tell anyone about anything Walmart does: This is not sufficient for survival. It cannot be a substitute for truly local distribution, and really doesn’t even uphold local production. The money leaves the community. To whatever extent we participate in this, it has to be only as a temporary economic survival tactic while we build parallel but independent, truly local and sustainable, distribution networks. We have to become able to stand on our own. That’s the essence of what’s sustainable, and the real definition of that word includes a naturally imposed mandate. True sustainability, unlike any corporate marketing term or battle plan, is not a choice, but an existential imperative. Since Walmart “sustainability” can hinder this action, it has to be touched only with skepticism and with the consciousness that this is not enough, we need to still build our own infrastructure, and the goal is to break free of all corporate distribution.
We know where Walmart always leads. We’ve seen its scorched earth mentality toward local business (right there we have a decisive precedent for what it really thinks of local farmers), jobs, workers, externalizing costs on the community, forcing people into cars. It has a unanimous record as a kind of Mongol horde ravaging the countryside, putting all communities to the sword and torch. We know this is the same poison.
Again, we don’t need to rely purely on deduction here. We can look at the record of Walmart’s vaunted “organic” initiative
. Watchdogs and studies have extensively documented how this has been widely flouted in practice. Walmart frequently uses misleading banners and shelf layouts to misrepresent non-organic products as “organic”. And it has systematically abused the term “organic” and even the USDA Organic seal on non-food products containing harmful synthetic ingredients. (Apparently there’s little restriction on the basic term “organic” on labels for non-foods, but you certainly can’t use the USDA seal for synthetic products.) Much of this organic sourcing has been offshored to China. Not only are the organic inspection safeguards practically nil in China, but this also puts Walmart’s newfound commitment to “local” production in ironic perspective. I won’t try to select a single quote from this excellent summary
of what Walmart “organic” has meant. It’s a fairly short piece, worth reading in its entirety. And the white paper I linked above is a far more extensive treatment. Based on this case study, and Walmart’s universal record, we can forecast the same dynamic for “local” and “sustainable” in their hands.
So why is Walmart trying to do this, if they’re not morally on the level? The consensus is that the main reason is to continue the political whitewash and greenwash they’ve been embarked upon since 2005, after such a run of bad publicity over their labor practices and their gutting of local economies (again that perspective on localism). It may also be part of a plan to squeeze more out of bigger suppliers, by promoting an alternative with great fanfare. Even if it is pretty clearly a bluff, and one which corporate producers must in other ways applaud and support, they too have to view Walmart as fundamentally predatory toward them as well. And perhaps this is even Walmart hedging its bets with regard to Peak Oil. That’s definitely not the main reason, but it could be a secondary one.
There’s no question what we need to do as customers. It’s the same as with every other potential interaction with Walmart. If you can afford to patronize local businesses, always do so. Only shop at Walmart under economic duress. (And I disclose, being under such duress, I sometimes have to do so myself. But I’m always aware that this is something from which we need to find a way to break free completely.) So the same dynamic applies with food, but even more critically. If economically and logistically possible, buy directly from local farmers, or from local grocers who carry local produce. If you must go to a chain, choose the supermarket over Walmart. The supermarket hasn’t played anywhere near the same role in devastating communities the way Walmart has. Only shop at Walmart as a last recourse, when there’s no practicable alternative.
What should farmers do? They may need to sell to Walmart to some extent. But they need to be aware that this is a trap set for them. They need to simultaneously keep working for truly independent, democratic distribution. We need to keep ALL our money in the community, or as much as possible. If it’s possible to prevent Walmart from making off with one extra cent, that’s worth preventing. Otherwise we shall become Walmart’s serfs, just like the way the chicken and hog markets are dominated by distributor oligopolies. Here a monopoly retailer threatens, but the principle and the threatened outcome are the same.
The essence of true sustainability is that food producers own and manage their production while they and the community own and manage the distribution network, which distributes within the community for the full benefit of the local producers and community. The closer we come to this goal, the more democratic, prosperous, secure, healthy, and fulfilled our lives will be. Walmart is definitely no friend to this goal, and to the extent we have to deal with them at all, it has to be as a temporary measure, perhaps seeking if possible to use them to our advantage, but always with the consciousness that the world we seek is free of them completely.