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Strange Bedfellows

August 25, 2011

Let’s play a game.

This has either been the week of really great reader feedback, or the week that I haven’t sufficiently made my point the first time around. Maybe it’s a little of both. On Tuesday I got some flack about buying honey from the grocery store. Then just yesterday, both in the comments and on Facebook I got some guff for this statement:

If you think the food system is broken, shopping at farmers markets and buying direct from local producers isn’t going to fix it. By voting with your wallet and supporting the larger businesses that are making a positive change, you encourage more positive change.

Some people would rather go off the grid. And I can totally understand that. Places like Walmart are despised by many who think the answer to solving our problems is embracing the small. Now don’t get me wrong, there is a lot about small that I love, and I think that small is important. But I also think both things can coexist in the same universe.

Thinking about this yesterday, I came up with what I thought was an interesting question. So here’s the game. Read the below question and mull it over. Take your time. Once you have an answer in your head, then click through, and read my thoughts. Then let’s discuss. Okay? Here we go.

Question of the day: How do you realistically get GMOs out of the food supply?

It’s not buying local.

Just because you are buying local doesn’t mean you are avoiding genetically modified crops. Take corn for example. 86% of the corn grown in the U.S. is GM. Now the local corn you buy may be organic or biodynamic, then you are good to go. You might also have a conversation with your local farmer to find out of they use GM seeds. Maybe they do and maybe they don’t.

But even if you do your due diligence and find non-GM local corn, buying it keeps GMOs out of your personal food supply, but it does nothing to get it out of 75% of products that are on supermarket shelves.

It’s not relying on the government.

For those who were thinking that Michelle Obama’s focus on food would bring significant and positive change to our nation’s food system, it hasn’t happened yet. In fact, her husband appointed Michael Taylor to be the US Food Safety Czar in 2009. He’s a former Monsanto guy who was a big proponent of GMOs.

Don’t hold your breath for the FDA to require labeling of products that contain GMOs. The logic behind this kills me: if people knew all their food had genetically modified ingredients in it, they would stop buying it, so we simply shouldn’t tell them.

It’s not grassroots consumer or corporate activism.

Just look back at what happened with GM alfalfa. Despite big players in the organic industry getting involved, like Stoneyfield Farm, Whole Foods and others, at the end of the day Monsanto prevailed. And they had the money, motivation and organization to fight. Now we have to wait and see if the unintended consequences that threatened to eviscerate the purity of organic food, come to pass.

It’s Walmart.

This is not a joke. Walmart makes decisions and these decisions change industries. And they don’t do it for altruistic reasons. They do it to make a profit. Take for example laundry detergent. They stopped selling single strength detergent. Walmart wanted to reduce shipping costs, and figured moving to double and triple strength detergent would improve their bottom line. The side benefit of this is a lot less packaging, gasoline, and a smaller carbon footprint at every step of the process.

Walmart committed to organic food because it was a fast growing segment of the industry, and they wanted to capitalize on it. By putting it in their stores they could make more money. It was something consumer demanded. The same is true with local food. If you’ve been to Walmart recently, you may have noticed that they carry an increasing selection of local and regional items.

If there is enough consumer demand for GM labeling, they could take it up independently. That is if Walmart thought it would bring additional customers into the store and increase revenue.

And if Walmart made this move, invariably others would soon follow suit.

The end result would be lower levels of GM ingredients in food. Just like what happened when trans fats were listed on nutritional labels. All of a sudden partially hydrogenated oils began vanishing from ingredient lists.

Yes, Walmart is a strange ally for someone who cares about locally produced organic food. But it’s no stranger than the hippies getting together with the NRA to protect the environment. Sometimes you have to embrace an adversary to make the change you seek.

That is, unless you have some other way.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Tonia permalink
    August 25, 2011 10:37 am

    I know this is a little off topic, and I think this was brought up before, but I’ll say it again. It is great for all of us to debate on here and most of us who participate in these conversations care about these topics and pay attention to the Montsanto and the Michael Taylor stuff. But how many people outside these little groups care? I often feel discouraged within my own group of people…people think I’m crazy when I talk about these things or they brush it off and say they don’t really care or whatever lame thing they have to say. The truth may be that there are more peeps who do not care or care to think about these topics [maybe that is a blanket statement] then there are who do. How can we influence these people??Can we? I posted something a few days ago about the Montsanto/Michael Taylor thing. No one cares [at least in my circle], maybe a select few.

    I think that you bring up some very valid points and pose a new way of attacking this that many people will disagree with, but I think they should still be considered. And, like I said yesterday, sometimes for me it is a matter of practicality. I force myself to pick and choose my battles as a consumer as hard as it may be to stomach.

  2. August 25, 2011 10:21 pm

    It’s the end of a long day for me and I’d like to respond point by point, but I will say this for now: Why do you think Walmart chose to take a part of the market share of local/organic foods, started using less packaging, and have strarted suddenly caring about other sustainable methods of operation and offerings? Here’s why: Because people were choosing to buy somewhere else, perhaps from someone who lives in their community, who actually cares about the effects these changes bring and not just because it makes them a buck (or billions, in MallWart’s case). So, thanks Walmart, for stealing small biz customers from the people who formed the philosophies you are co-opting and sometimes greenwashing into success for yourself, leaving small producers who collectively contribute more money, time, and effort to their immediate communities in the dust(bowls). Sorry, but I don’t buy it, Professsor! And yes, that means I don’t buy from Walmart either, based on the principle that most big corportations pretty much exclusively worry about their bottom line, not about real people and the things that affect them. You make that case for Walmart quite well.

    Lest anyone think I am a hypocrite, I fully admit I do purchase *some* things (shoes @Birkenstock, computer @ Microsoft) from large corporations, but only when I can’t find someone local who can provide what I need, and I investigate business practices before I purchase as much as humanly possible. I know the farmer I buy my sweet corn from and I trust when he tells me there are no GMOs. I wouldn’t trust Walmart if they told me the same.

  3. August 25, 2011 11:58 pm

    One more thing: Voting with our dollars effects change and means something, whether it be w/ Walmart or our farming friends. In support of localism: There’s something significant about forming *personal* relationships with our farmers and our food – getting dirt on our feet and pollen in our eyes while picking baby corn on a late summer day makes me (personally) feel happy and connected to the food I’m eating (& the 2 farmers who grew it). Offering Real Food to others for its pure nutritive, sensory value and story of who is doing the backbreaking work of allowing us to buy it is important to my husband and me. It brings our community together in a way a big corporation can’t. Walmart doesn’t take (actually healthy) food to a friend who just gave birth. WE KNOW the food is safe, that it was grown responsibly and with thoughtful care by people who work extremely hard to bring our family (and customers) food that won’t make us a community sick with all the food/toxin-related illnesses that get reported every day. Do you get that at Walmart? Can you be sure that what you’re getting is what it says it is? Can you follow the path from your food to your plate without a lot of complications, involving strangers & corporations? There is value to knowing exactly what you are consuming, how & by whom it was produced, and intimately, over time discovering the real joys of food that take place before one bite crosses your lips.

    • August 26, 2011 12:06 am

      So, there are a couple of grammatical errors in there, but I’ll plead late night, long day. Please forgive.

      • Tonia permalink
        August 26, 2011 3:54 am

        I agree and totally appreciate what you are saying here. I do almost my own baking, breads, snacks, etc. I grow my own heirloom and organic veggies [well as organic as they can be in the world of lawn chemicals around me]. My dad has the honey. I’ve been in the fields with an old honey dude, I know what you mean…the whole connection with food, the supporting of the local and/or smaller businesses…whether food, healthfood store, farmstand, or farmer’s market. I get it. But, Walmart doesn’t just sell Walmart brand. And some of us cannot always afford to buy at these items at other places. For example, I LOVE Jason and Mill Creek products, the co-op and other local stores sell them for double the cost. Where do I buy them? I buy them online for half the price. Still the same product. Still supporting that company. You can still support various brands no matter where you buy them. Do I hate the concept of Walmart? Yes. Do I loath when I occasionally have to go there? Yes. But can I get Heidelberg bread there? Yes. Can I get Cascadian Farms granola bars and cereals there? Yes. Kashi? Yes. So, the one point I disagree on, that you can’t know where you product comes from. And for many, it is more a matter of the cash. And, to point out…. a “local” farmer, one at the Delmar Farmers Market [I won’t call any one out here], ships their stuff from all over, so I ask, how is that local? Local is my own garden. :-)

  4. amanda_ny permalink
    August 26, 2011 1:20 am

    Didn’t Eric Schlosser make a similar point in Fast Food Nation about the effect that changes in McDonalds’ requirements from its suppliers would have on food production? McD’s is such a huge customer, that if it decided to use only pastured poultry or beef that had never been treated with hormones or antibiotics, those industries would rapidly change to meet that need. I agree with Tonia, though, that trying to convince people to care about food safety in the wider marketplace is sometimes discouraging. I’m glad that there are people like the passionate folks at All Good Bakers to help inspire us!

  5. August 26, 2011 8:19 am

    You bring up some good points here. For me personally, I can’t stand Walmart’s business model, and I refuse to shop there for reasons that go FAR beyond groceries. Actually, *as a grocery store* I feel like they are a better option, in many ways, for working families (as much as I hate to say it), because they do offer stuff like Kashi (for example) for prices those families can afford.

    Have you noticed their marketing campaign of late? “Save money, live better.” With cleaner graphics. They’re trying to market to middle class and upper-middle class, well-educated families. AND IT’S WORKING. Stuff like “People of Walmart” to more to damage the company than do, say, people like us.

    I buy a lot of things from corporations. My food is (generally) not one of them (the exception being Trader Joe’s, and I’m not sure if that technically qualifies as a “corporation,” as I am unsure if it is publicly traded). I do buy most of my clothes from national chains, for example. I also have a Kindle (and though I love my e-reader, I’ve been feeling massive guilt over the shuttering of local booksellers). Like All Good Bakers, I do my best to vet these companies to ensure their practices meet my values. I’m unhappy with Target right now, for example, fort their union-busting nonsense, but I’m still less offended by that than what Walmart has done systematically to economies of scale for decades. (Also, as much as the union-busting makes my blood boil, Target as a whole does treat it’s employees well, offers comprehensive benefits and pays a decent wage, which is more that I can say for Walmart.)

    I buy my food (mostly) locally, because, quite frankly, it tastes better. I have moved toward buying ethical meat (I buy most of it from Cardona’s, but occasionally treat myself to “the good stuff” at the Co-op). I’ve basically cut high fructose corn syrup from my diet entirely, and it gives me a nasty headache when I do consume it unwittingly. In many ways, my motivations are selfish. Buying local is a personal preference for me, and at the same time I can support the local economy.

    I think, though, our practices of buying local are noticed by our peers. And while our peers may not be unwilling to stop shopping at Walmart, they may say, “Hey, we want Walmart to sell what Joe and Susie had for dinner last night, so we can make it, too, but we just can’t afford* those farmer’s market prices.” And we’re seeing that.

    *Of course they can. They just choose their values differently. I spend a lot of money on food and cut back elsewhere, because that’s where my personal values lay.

  6. northcountryrambler permalink
    August 26, 2011 9:47 am

    I think the Profussor’s vision of a perfect (food) world misses an important point. If *everyone* relied on an organic, non GM, non pesticide protected, non nitrate fertilized, product exclusively for their tables, half the world would starve to death. Unfortunately only through all of these “advances” (bold quotes) are we able to feed the world without cutting down the rest of the rain forest. Unfortunately there are no absolute answers. I think most of us (DB’s followers) prefer locally grown organic products, but we should all acknowledge that it is in many ways, a luxury.

    • May 15, 2013 12:26 am

      I wonder if you are a gardener? Don’t be fooled by the pro-gmo claim that we could not feed the world using conventional techniques. Can I suggest you google Peter Proctor and look at how he is helping Indian farmers produce bumper crops using biodynamics. He went to India to help farmers recover from the disaster caused from using Monsanto’s gmo seeds and chemicals. Around 12 000 farmers a year are committing suicide as a result of degredated soils and withered crops. Our biggest problem is WASTED food – wasted in order to keep prices up. All of my neighbours have converted to organics after seeing the results (and taste) of abundant produce from my garden. I’m glad they’re not poisoning the soil and air with their sprays. The global bee population is in serious decline as I’m sure you know, and products like Roundup are the number one suspect. Happy gardening!

  7. Jean Patiky permalink
    August 27, 2011 9:49 pm

    Fascinating post and intelligent and thoughtful commentary . A lot of food for thought. Well done!!!

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