In case you missed it, the Walmart Corporation announced last week that they intend to make a major investment in sustainable agriculture. Most of the blogs, Facebook posts and Tweets seem to be pretty excited! Please forgive me if I reserve judgment and explore this news a bit before I celebrate.
Perhaps its fortuitous that I’ve finished a 7-part series on sustainable food and farming here on World.edu, just in time to use these ideas to help us explore the question “is Walmart’s version of sustainable agriculture really sustainable?”
One of my earlier posts presented the generally well-accepted idea that sustainable agriculture needs to consider at least three perspectives or goals:
- economic vitality
- social equity or justice
- environmental integrity
At first glance the Walmart announcement seems to address these three perspectives. In fact their own three-part sustainability goal statement is pretty similar to the version above.
- To address economic vitality, the Walmart plan calls for increasing the income of small and medium farmers by 10 to 15 percent.
- To address the need for social equity, Walmart will double its sales of locally purchased food products and also insure that half of the farmers trained worldwide will be women.
- To address environmental integrity Walmart will train 1 million farmers and farm workers in “sustainable farming practices.”
This all sounds great! But lets dig a little deeper. When I introduced the 3-part goal, I suggested the way in which the goals are presented in relationship to each other matters.
The traditional venn diagram on the left presents the 3 goals as competing. While they may overlap in the middle, each goal is “pulling in its own direction.” It is a safe bet that Walmart will only invest in social equity and environmental integrity when it also serves the economic bottom line. While there is nothing wrong with making money, a truly sustainable agriculture needs to do better than “serving environmental and social interests only when it makes a profit.” A corporation must place profit above other interests, but the rest of us have a responsibility to think more inclusively.
For example, the investment in local food may save the corporation money currently used to pay for transportation, and thus allow lower prices for the consumer. This is what Walmart does best – keep retail prices low. As the price of oil increases over time (which it surely must), locally grown food will provide an even greater advantage. Again, not a bad thing. But dealing with small and mid-sized farms will give the corporation tremendous leverage in setting wholesale prices. Currently, small and mid-sized farmers realize a greater return than some wholesale shippers either because they are growing specialty products or because they can sell directly to customers. Both of these advantages will be lost once they start selling to the corporation. First, any additional profit realized by reducing transportation costs will likely accrue to Walmart rather than the farmer. Second, specialty items which formerly returned a high price will become “commodified” by the corporation, thus driving down profits. The consumer will benefit from cheaper food, but the producer will lose over time. This is how the commodity system always works!
Further, according to Executive Vice President Leslie Dach, the plan to train farmers in sustainable practices will specifically help them “with the optimum amounts of water, pesticides and fertilizers, and to grow the crops the market will buy.” This sounds like the sort of contractual relationship that the Monsanto Corporation requires of anyone using their seed. If you want to farm for Walmart, you may need to do it their way. What will this do to the entrepreneurial approach farmers who “think sustainably” have brought to their work? To me, this sounds like a recipe for standardized farming practices which will reduce the ability of small and mid-sized farm managers to experiment with practices that show a return on investment to good management.
The standardization of farming practices and products by the corporation will most likely reduce creativity – a necessary ingredient in the quest for agricultural sustainability.
Maybe I’m just too cynical? Perhaps Walmart will be different than other major corporations and truly demonstrate a long-term commitment to social change and environmental quality? We can hope!
Lets now look at a more holistic relationship among the 3 sustainability goals. In the model on the left, the goals are presented as a nested hierarchy in which a healthy economy is totally dependent upon a healthy society, which itself is dependent on a healthy environment. In this living systems model, we look to the outer system (environment) for purpose and the inner system (economy) for function.
The reason we care about economic vitality is to insure that social equity and environmental integrity are served.
This model is based on an ecological design, rather than a corporate worldview. While it might be a bit much to ask Walmart to consider this perspective, this is the perspective I suggest we use to evaluate success in sustainable food and farming systems!
This holistic perspective makes the economy a servant of society, not the other way around. If we apply this perspective to the Walmart announcement, we might begin to wonder if its truly as good as it sounds. For example, a truly sustainable agriculture would do all it can to keep money circulating in local communities. The purpose of the corporation however is to make money for shareholders, thus “exporting profits” from the farming community. This is the industrial agriculture system, and I’m not sure the corporation can do anything other than support this system. For example, here is how they buy and sell lettuce….
Perhaps we should ask for more than locally grown and inexpensive food. Perhaps we should be working for a greater vision of food sovereignty. The vision statement for the National Family Farm Coalition for example states, “we envision empowered communities everywhere working together democratically to advance a food system that ensures health, justice and dignity for all. Farmers, farm workers, ranchers, and fishers will have control over their lands, water, seeds and livelihoods and all people will have access to healthy, local, and delicious food.” That seems to me to be a vision worth working toward!
Lets look more closely at an ecological framework for sustainable agriculture. Another post states that sustainable farming systems need to play by “Mother Nature’s rules” which are:
- Use current solar income
- Cycle everything possible (waste=food)
- Enhance biological diversity
To give Walmart credit, several components of their plan focus specifically on aspects of the first two rules. For example there is a significant effort to reduce waste in the food chain, surely a good thing. It would be better still if efforts were made to return food waste to the soil through a composting system (waste = food).
Further, the overarching sustainability guidelines for the corporation claim an intent to move to 100% renewable energy over time. There is nothing obvious in the sustainable agriculture plans however to address this goal. But maybe that will come later.
Finally, I wonder about the corporation’s commitment to biological diversity. The need to standardize practices and products will not likely leave much room for mixed cropping, integrated plant and animal systems, or polyculture and permaculture systems based on ecological principles.
Of course I may be wrong. Walmart’s announcement claims their commitment to sustainable agriculture will “help small and medium sized farmers expand their businesses, get more income for their products, and reduce the environmental impact of farming, while strengthening local economies and providing customers around the world with long-term access to affordable, high-quality, fresh food.” Perhaps……
What do you think? Is this good news?
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