Monday, July 03, 2006

Wal-ganic

Packing a ship and sailing to colonize a far-off land with virgin terrain and intricately interwoven ecosystems — and still surviving past the first winter — is a triumph. It was the first step that the first Americans made in adapting to the New England landscape. In those times, people lived around the conditions of the land. In these times, we form the land around our lifestyles: that's the very definition of anthropocentrism; a people-centered culture.

The industrial revolution hinged on using machines to make our lives easier, to produce goods with less labor and in larger quantities. Through time, goods were produced more efficiently in even larger quantities, which includes our food. We found chemicals and substances, methods of irrigation and delivery that industrialized the food chain.

But with unlimited production of consumer goods and government-sponsored agriculture, there have been side effects. Externalities like polluted aquifers, fish kills, BSE, erosion, ozone, brimming landfills, birth defects and dangerously high levels of contaminants in our drinking water and soil run rampant from our industrial indulgence.

Decades later, a counterculture of organic farmers and growers have brought back part of what made pre-industrialized life better for our health: biocentrism, or coexisting with the landscape. Instead of conquering and surmounting the Great Plains to grow amber waves of grain, they're coddling the hills and embracing the natural ecosystem, planting smaller crops and using biological pest management strategies. And their revolution? It's catching on so much that the world's largest retailer wants a piece of their wholesome, Earth-loving pie.

But wait! Wal-Mart is bad, right? Well, yes, in some aspects, but when you dismiss the mammoth discount retailer as all things evil, you're ignoring the environmental implications of this adjustment. In theory, if all of the produce that Wal-Mart moves annually were organic, the environmental benefits would astound. That's several millions of pounds of fresh produce, which if grown organically, would spare our environment from a significant portion of the one billion pounds that, according to the EPA, are applied to U.S. crops annually.

Often we overlook the supply chain, seeing only the neatly stacked apples and recently misted broccoli crowns under the grocer's fluorescent lights. That product required chemicals to keep pests from eating it before you do, it required water diverted from rivers that never reach the ocean. It was harvested by machines that belch as much carbon into the air as a half-dozen pickups with leaky mufflers. Mass producing organic fruits, vegetables, grains and fibers would drastically reduce the environmental impact of traditional farming.

And with Wal-Mart, the price is right, too. Your typical pound of organic apples at a specialty retailer like Whole Foods or Central Market would cost anywhere from $4 to $6, but at Wal-Mart, $2 per pound is about as much as you'll pay. This opens up the organic market to people with incomes far smaller than the Whole Foods frequenter. Although some critics of organic farming say that the health benefits from products free of chemicals, fertilizers and other man-made agricultural interlopers are marginal. But the social and environmental benefits of organics will provide a feel-good ripple effect. People who buy organic will know that their demand is shaping the supply chain, and that has hope to change the face of how America grows and harvests food.

8 comments:

Olivia said...

Cant help wondering though, that at this scale, organic mass production could become the very thing it seeks to oppose.

Although my first organic experience was negative (a skinny corn cob with shrivelled niblets teeming with insects) I do try to go organic as often as possible.

I like the little background lesson you started with!

Olivia said...

P.S. Have you ever tried the frut and veg at a Super Target? Always a notch above Wal-Mart's, as well as the produce they carry, and even their own brand Archer Farms.

I missed the US a bit today :(

lunaliar said...

The key to the organic trend is accessibility. With the severly depressed wages in the U.S. as a result of lax immigration enforcement, most people have no choice but to shop at the oversized crap-dealer (Wal-Mart) just to make ends meet. I'm a lucky one -- I hardly drive and I live within a mile of fresh organic produce and small urban markets.

My honest opinion is this: Wal-Mart has every right to purchase organic products at the same price as all other grocers and sell them at a much lower profit due to their economy of scale. If people want to, or can afford to, buy organic produce at smaller markets (which is what I often do) at a greater mark-up, then by all means, they should. But if Wal-Mart begins to depress the price of organics or thereby adulturates the standards of organic production, then they've crossed the line.

Otherwise, those who are proponents of organics but dissidents of access to them are sheerly elitest to the common man that has no other choice. Either raise the minimum wage to a livable income or give Wal-Mart a chance.

Olivia said...

Exactly, that's what worries me: cheating:-- if, in meeting demand and keeping prices low, W-M "adulterates the standards of organic production"

lunaliar said...

But, does that mean that we can't give them a chance? Our organic standards are already quite lax when it comes to finished products, and I think that if more people had access, it'd empower the market for higher organic standards because the luxury level would have to increase. Instead of just "Certified Organic" we'd find producers going the extra mile to create completely organic finished products. I think it's worth a shot.

Olivia said...

Hey good point. How's it going otherwise? :)

lunaliar said...

I'm right about to blog about my EXTREME weekend. So many events, thank goodness the blogosphere is without limit! Stay tuned!

Olivia said...

Looking forward to hearing about the newest member of your family ;)