When Wal-Mart goes organic

Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable. Back then, organic food was something of a rarity, found only in local food co-ops and farmers’ markets, and the idea that the nation’s biggest retail corporations would find themselves catering to the organics market would have seemed far-fetched.

Today, it’s reality. Concerns over pesticides, hormones and other chemicals in the food supply are prompting record numbers of consumers to go organic, making it the fastest-growing segment of the grocery business. In response, Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest grocer, has announced plans to launch a full line of organic foods, joining the growing list of corporate chains marketing organics under their own “designer” store-brand labels. It’s an announcement that comes at a critical moment for the organics movement, representing both a victory and a call to arms.

First, the good news: Because organic crops must be produced without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers, every organic product sold means fewer toxins in our soil and water. When a giant like Wal-Mart gets involved, it means thousands of acres of farmland no longer will be doused with chemicals like Atrazine, the powerful herbicide banned by the European Union for its links to prostate and breast cancer but still used on 70 percent of America’s cornfields. Similarly, organic beef and chicken must be produced with organic feed, which means even more farm acres will be chemical-free.

So, what’s not to like? Unfortunately, when corporate giants like Wal-Mart, Safeway and Dean Foods enter the market, they pressure organic growers to cut costs by becoming more industrial in their farming practices, threatening the basic values that make organic worthwhile.

Consider organic dairy farming, where the impact is already being felt. Most organic dairies are small operations of no more than a couple hundred cows, where herds graze on pasture and are milked twice daily. Utilizing loopholes in organics regulations, Dean Foods markets “organic” milk produced in industrial-sized farms where thousands of cows are confined in dry feedlots and milked three times per day. Such methods bring costs down, but they are unhealthy for the cattle, and ultimately unsustainable, requiring vast amounts of petroleum to grow and transport feed, and more to remove animal waste. The feedlot “organic” dairies also cause ground and water pollution as concentrated animal wastes build up.

All of us who care about the environment need to look at this as a critical time. As Wal-Mart and other mega-retailers strive to supply their stores with organic foods, we can’t allow them to introduce unsustainable, ecologically damaging practices into organic farming or pressure the federal government to ease regulations that define “organic.” Let’s be aware of what we’re buying and how it’s produced, and let’s not let corporations hijack the organic movement.