Wal-Mart Promises Local Food, While Big Ag Gears Up for a Fight

Last week, Wal-Mart–the largest grocer in the world with over 8,600 stores in 15 countries, two million employees and sales of $405 billion–made news when it launched sustainable agriculture goals for the U.S. and emerging markets focused on regional food systems. The move is part of decade-long trend of food businesses–from producers to purveyors–adapting, or at least claiming to adapt, to the consumer demand for sustainable food.

Wal-Mart’s decision–the details of which I will get to in a moment–comes on the heels of the success of chains like Whole Foods, which also touts local foods. But unlike Whole Foods, which is considered “niche”, Wal-Mart is mainstream. Some say that this announcement is going to shake the ground under agri-business, which has vehemently fought against anyone suggesting changes to the food system for years now. But agri-business companies are not going to take this shift in consumer demand lying down.

In fact, agri-business elites have been trying either covertly or otherwise to convince the consumer that sustainable food advocates have misled them into thinking the current food system is unsafe, unjust, and unhealthy. And the evidence shows that more of the same is coming down the pipeline.

Just last month, the subscriber newsletter Agri-Pulse reported that Tip Tipton–the man behind the “Got Milk?” campaign–has been tapped to create an “ag image” campaign that seeks “to reverse consumers’ negative perceptions about a broad range of issues including so-called ‘factory farming,’ the use of agricultural chemicals, livestock management practices, processed ‘industrial food,’ and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).” The amount the parties involved feel would be needed to reverse the tide of “consumer backlash”? Twenty to 30 million dollars per year. These groups hope to get funding from companies like Monsanto and Cargill and will be seeking out commodity check-off program funding via commodity growers if possible.

We will see if the various groups jockeying to lead the vision of this campaign will succeed beyond past failed attempts like the Corn Refiners Association’s Sweet Surprise campaign, which sought to change consumer ideas about High Fructose Corn Syrup but was instead mercilessly mocked. In the end, the Corn Refiners scrapped the plan in favor of an attempt at re-branding their product “corn sugar.”

One thing is certain, Michael Pollan is the most feared man to agri-business interests. To wit, from Agri-Pulse: “The Michael Pollans of the world and others of his ilk really have captured the imagination of the American public who now think that ‘organic’ is a brand and that everything else that is out here… has no brand image whatsoever,” said Jay Vroom, the CEO of CropLife America, an organization that advocates for the use of pesticides.

National Corn Growers Association Communications Director Ken Colombini told Agri-Pulse:

There is actually a very positive image of corn farmers and corn growers out there… [But] Food, Inc. almost won an Oscar. The other side is getting so much more funding, so much more interest in the mainstream media… We’ve seen so many attacks… we see Michael Pollan going on Oprah… what’s going to happen when those people like Michael Pollan start to have an impact in Washington on policies and regulations?

The author of the article even took to editorializing:

One wake-up call to the ag sector was the remarkable speed with which major food companies reacted to the Pollan message by replacing HFCS in their cereals, soft drinks and other food products with old-fashioned sugar–despite the fact that a number of studies have demonstrated that there’s no difference between the two as far as the human gut is concerned. The only difference, it seems, is in ‘Pollan-ated’ humans minds.

The “ag image” campaign, which according to Agri-Pulse will launch early next year, is joined by another initiative to protect future Big Ag profits with a messaging blitzkrieg. Agriculture communications departments are common at ag schools–what is new is the blatant fund-raising focused on agri-business. The College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is speaking Big Ag’s language in its brochure to invite donations [PDF]:

There is a fundamental mistrust among many people of new and novel commercial technologies and the companies that develop them. These companies, critical partners in food and fiber production, face increasingly longer and more expensive development and regulatory lead times, and thus fewer years of exclusivity to reward innovation and pay down research costs.

Their answer: Two million dollars in donations to churn out “key partners in implementing and positioning new technologies vital to meeting a growing demand for biofuels and safe, nutritious and affordable food.” DuPont is on board for $200,000, which we know from a press release [PDF]. But just like the corporate-driven shadow funding this year’s political campaigns, we may never know every player who is behind these types of efforts.

Meanwhile, giants like Wal-Mart will divert our attention from its labor practices by presenting an initiative, that while questions linger, at least focuses on measurable commitments. These include investing in regional food system infrastructure to facilitate bringing local produce to Wal-Mart stores; the creation of a sustainability index that would provide information directly to the consumer in-store about production methods; and new guidelines for product sourcing–including specifically seeking out sustainable palm oil for use in over 100 packaged items sold in the store. The company hopes to double local produce (defined as that which can be procured in-state) sold in U.S. stores to nine percent by 2015.

There is no doubt that by its sheer size, Wal-Mart’s plan will have a huge impact on buying and growing practices worldwide. In places like the Southeast U.S. where cotton and tobacco growing has waned, for example, the company is encouraging the re-emergence of diversified vegetable operations. This initiative has the potential to push forward regional food systems more quickly than the government would be able to through policy-focused rural redevelopment programs–which are currently hyper-focused on broadband and ethanol.

But while Wal-Mart aims to bolster local communities by putting more money into the hands of farmers, critics argue that much of the money the consumer spends at the cash register will still leave the community. Marion Nestle writes that the initiative could only truly help farmers if Wal-Mart, which has historically demanded the lowest prices from its suppliers, pays them fairly for their work. Other sustainable food advocates think that the move is just “greenwashing.” Indeed, the plan makes no mention of organic practices or labor standards, both of which are very important to the sustainable food community. But unlike Monsanto’s claim of being sustainable based on drought tolerant seeds that never materialize, or PepsiCo’s claim to “encourage people to live healthier” while selling them empty calories, Wal-Mart’s plan has muddied the waters of sustainability with added nuance.

However, the ag sector is changing–many would argue irrevocably. Consumers who have developed a preference for unprocessed foods don’t seem to be ready to go back to junk food anytime soon. We will see soon enough whether consumer buying power and commitments like Wal-Mart’s inspire other companies to adopt the “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” mentality–and what kind of dent this massive corporately-funded “ag image” campaign will have. One thing is clear: the cash is on the side of the powerful, and the sustainable food movement still has a lot of work to do on messaging in order to define what is, and is not, sustainable.

Photo: fourstarcashiernathan via flickr

12 thoughts on “Wal-Mart Promises Local Food, While Big Ag Gears Up for a Fight

  1. I recently recorded a Skype interview with NRDC reporter, Frederick Kaufman, about companies such as Del Monte, Heinz, Unilever and Wal-Mart coming up with a “Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops”. This index is an attempt by large companies to measure the environmental impact of the seed-to-shelf life cycle of any produce-based product. Sounds like a good idea until you look closer. My conversation with Fred talks about what is going on behind closed doors and how the information conveyed to the general public about sustainability could be “dangerously undermined.”

    The conversation is here: http://www.adventures-in-climate-change.com/conversation/frederick-kaufman.htm

  2. There are a few other issues that I hope will be on the table as we watch what happens following WalMart’s announcement. They are interconnected, and also related to the issues of community wealth and fair pricing mentioned above.

    1) Consolidation of the retail component of our food system is a problem. Not only does this effect the proportion of food dollars spent that stay within a local community (ie, consolidation usually happens when Walmarts or other big box stores come to town, causing profits to funnel up to the corporate office rather than circulating around the local community, as is more likely to happen if you shop at locally-owned stores), it leads to the second issue:

    2) The fewer buyers there are for a growers’ produce, the less likely it is that they will have a say when it comes to setting prices.

    3) When a grower, or any other type of company for that matter, sells to Walmart, Walmart is usually The Biggest Customer they have. And when the biggest customer you have is one that generally competes on price, they can drop you at any time if / when they find a lower price with one of your competitors. It’s just a risky business model.

    All this to say… good on Walmart for trying to do the right thing, and since I am fortunate enough to have both farmstands and a locally-owned, independent grocery store nearby (I realize these are not universal privileges!), I will continue to shop there for my fruits and veggies.

  3. Last week our local group, Shenandoah Forum, which is an attempt at a Buy Local, Buy Fresh, preserve the rural landscape group hosted an evening of local foods and gave a “state of the county” talk based on the numbers. There were over 14 local farms there promoting their goods. We even have a local grocery store coop coming to town.

    So, one of the farmers was talking about Walmart’s practices. The “local” movement they are boasting about wants the farmer to guarantee they will deliver to all the stores in a certain area. One of the local apple farmers figured it out, he would never get to all 30 stores in a weeks time. They only want a few boxes at each store. The current system has the apples delivered to Kentucky or Tennessee, then distributed through their trucks back to whence they came. There are going to be huge flaws with their “local” program. If you are late one time, you do not get paid in 30 days, you will get paid within 6 months. How’s that for keeping you afloat.

    In the horticultural industry, a grower does not get paid until the consumer makes the purchase. They call it Vendor Managed Inventory. So, you deliver the product, let it sit there, they don’t water it and then if you are lucky it gets sold. Now you if the consumer returns it, you are liable for that too.

    Seems fair, doesn’t it?

  4. In checking our subscription records, I can not find that you are a subscriber. Perhaps under a different name? If not, can you tell me who sent you a copy of my subscription only, copyright protected newsletter?

  5. Ooh, sounds like the information warfare is going to get pretty interesting these next few years. This is good. If the big-ag cartels try to mask their myriad profound problem with hi-budget advertising it should be fun and rather easy to rip their false images to shreds with simple, truthful, honest responses. That sounds hyperbolic, but all I mean is it’ll be simple to point out that their motives are merely profit based…because they are. They wouldn’t even deny that. But on the “other side” (hah!) I think that nearly everyone has an innate ability to recognize ecological coherence and health–that’s why the Michael Pollans of the world have had such a heyday. It’s because they speak a truth that resonates with most people!

    This could inspire some creative grassroots reactions. Come on artists, let’s work together to throw this back in their faces! All we need is to speak the truth, straight from the earth to our hearts/pens/cameras/paintbrushes/guitars.

    I’ma get workin’ on that right now.

    Thanks for the heads-up! Nothing is more satisfying to analyze and riff on than a blatantly sinister ad-campaign. :)

  6. If WalMart’s initiative helps to re-establish local and regional food networks and food distribution infrastructure, I favor it. But, if the new infrastructure is used solely for WalMart’s use, then it is a bad thing. We don’t need a race to the bottom of pricing for local farmers. They have been smart enough to sell their products directly to consumers or through limited middlemen and get a fair return on their investments. We do not need local produce to become another “Made Cheaply In China” knockoff where local farmers compete to undercut each other’s price to satisfy WalMart’s demands for low prices.

  7. It just cracks me up to see Walmart receiving praise from the locavores. They stand against everything we purportedly believe in but as soon as they put a “local” sign out there everyone is jumping up to see if they can be recognized first as a supporter. This is absolutely ridiculous. They are worse than all of the company farms that exist anywhere in the world as far as fair wages, local support and sustainability are concerned. There is no way in all of the world that Walmart is going local for any reason other than profit. End of story. If you’re going to bash corporate proffiteering you CANNOT do it discriminately.

    I’m also digging the bashing of “big -ag” for hiring a PR group. What the hell do you think Walmart does?? What the hell do you think Michael Pollan or Oprah do?? It’s all about image and it’s time for us to wake up to that fact. Ask any friend of yours in marketing – it’s all about spin and everyone does it. Our responsibility as careful and mindful consumers is to learn how to look past that spin and find the facts for ourselves. You have to read more than the papers and the blogs, you actually need to delve in to the scientific journals before you can really see who is putting what kind of spin out there.

    I don’t think it’s fair to stand here and bash “big-ag” while patting Walmart on the back. “Big-ag” is actually not that big. Sure, there are some GINORMOUS industrial set-ups out there but you have to be careful about who you call out and who you bash because when you lump all of agriculutre into one group and then base your assumptions of the way they do their work or their business by the GINORMOUS corporate entities you’re cutting of your nose to spite your face.

    We have to eat, folks, and causing the farmers to go out of business just so you can feel better about yourselves is not going to turn out very well. There are consequences to all our actions, make sure you’re ready to deal with those that we’re putting in place.

  8. Sara: Thanks for being in touch. I’m not a subscriber to your newsletter, but I would like to be. Do you have a rate for journalists?

    Simply put, your skilled reporting revealed something I felt was relevant to my audience and so I reported on it. I feel I am well within my rights of fair use, and that I might have even exposed your work to a new audience of potential subscribers. Is there something in particular bothering you about my reporting? It was not my intention to upset you.

  9. Pingback: Trick or Treat – Walmart and Local, Sustainable Food « Volatility

  10. Pingback: Civil Eats » Blog Archive » When Small Fails