Sold out?

Organic sell outMainstream success may spoil organic agriculture.

MY NAME IS KEVIN C. AND I AM A COSTCO-HOLIC. You gotta love a place where you can buy a 30-gallon jug of mayonnaise, season two of Battlestar Gallactica, 37 pounds of frozen ground beef, a flat-screen HDTV, and a cut-rate mahogany coffin all in one fell shopping swoop. Just polish off the beef and the 30 gallons of mayo while enjoying BG on your HDTV, and you’ll be a few (non)steps closer to using that coffin. A fella has to plan ahead.

Odd commodities regularly crop up at Costco (DKNY running socks anyone?), but something surprising even by Costco’s standards has been happening at my favorite megastore. Organic goods have begun making a tentative appearance along Costco’s crazy aisles just as their presence in regular supermarkets has similarly beefed up over the last few years. A recent Costco safari, for instance, netted a 4-pound bag of frozen organic broccoli and a companion package of organic green beans. Now comes word that the mother-of-all retailers, Wal-Mart, wants to “upscale” its image by filling whole sections of its superstores with organic goods.

Wal-Mart is only the most recent major chain to “get organic.” McDonalds will soon offer fair trade, organic coffee in New England; Kelloggs plans organic versions of popular cereals like Rice Krispies; and regional organic dairies and producers are being swallowed up by larger food and dairy conglomerates who see money in them there nontoxic hills. At $14 billion in annual sales, organics represent a tiny fraction of the nation’s $500 billion food budget, but with a growth rate of 20 percent per annum in recent years, organics have been the fastest growing sector in the food market.

The entry of big players like Wal-Mart could prove the market-making moment when organics, once the whiny preserve of Birkenstockers and macrobiotic know-it-alls, go mainstream, opening up to the rest of us simple folk, who have vague aspirations of eating ethically but who often choke on the 50 to 100 percent organic premium. This should be cause for rejoicing among promoters of the organic option, but Wal-Mart’s announcement has been the cause of as much consternation as celebration.

Part of the reason for the conflicting commercial reaction can be found stamped on the bottom of my properly green package of organic broccoli: “Made in China,” it reads without further explanation. Now we’ve all grown accustomed to the made-in-China mark showing up on everything from hi-tech electronics to children’s books, but broccoli? My green beans in turn found their way to Illinois via Belgium. Those are long, earth-stressing, fossil-fuel-burning journeys that suggest that even organics can end up as un-earth-friendly as “normal” food products.

Currently just about 10 percent of America’s organic appetite is sated by imports, a percentage that is certain to grow higher. Organic advocates are already warning that organic enforcement and the treatment of farmworkers in nations such as China may not be up to the spirit of equity and justice implied by the organic brand.

Producing organic food on a Wal-Mart scale could demand the industrial efficiency and ruthlessness of the current food-delivery system and could lead to corporate-cozy revisions of precisely what “organic” means in the first place. Already organic growers have found themselves in a number of disputes with conventional producers seeking ways to rhetorically repackage their products without fundamentally changing how they do business with the earth.

There are undeniable benefits offered up by a possible future of mass-marketed organics, the most prominent a dramatic reduction in the shower of pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers that soak our food crops, choke our waterways, poison our farmworkers, and employ our children in a vast, unacknowledged cancer-risk study. But when Wal-Mart takes organics to the market, the essence of the organic movement—its focus on the development of a rational and sustainable food delivery system—could be threatened by the requisites of the retailer’s cut-throat margins.

As always, it will ultimately be up to the U.S. consumer to define the long-term impact of the market’s conversion to being, like, totally organic. We will have to get beyond the label and put some time in on research, looking for locally produced food products that protect the environment, do justice to workers, and, not least of all, taste good.

Kevin Clarke is a senior editor at U.S. Catholic and managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the August 2006 (Volume 71, Number 8; page 38) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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