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Wal-Mart's 'local food' attempt too little, too late


Once reviled as a seven-letter word representing the myriad evils of capitalism, Wal-Mart has, in recent years, gone a bit greenish. Hybrid 18-wheelers haul Wal-Mart goods around the world's roads. Windmills and other renewable-energy sources supply power to many company stores, and now the world's largest corporation is attempting to promote locally and sustainably produced food.

An Oct. 14 company press release reads more like the mission statement of your local nonprofit food co-op than a memo from the world's largest retailer: "Wal-Mart today launched its new global commitment to sustainable agriculture that 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."

Wal-Mart's definition of "local" means food that's produced in the same state in which it is sold, and the company aims to have at least 9 percent of the produce sold in its U.S. stores meet this criteria by 2015. By then, the retail behemoth aims to have sold $1 billion worth of food from small and medium-sized farmers while boosting those farmers' incomes by 10 to 15 percent. Wal-Mart also intends to assist its farmers in crop selection, including working with Southern tobacco farmers to switch to growing blueberries.

It may seem out of character for Wal-Mart to act as an agent for positive change, but remember: the only thing Wal-Mart could do that would truly be out of character would be to knowingly undermine its bottom line. Like everything else it does, the promotion of sustainable, local agriculture is a calculated move to increase profits. If the corporate brainstem were to determine that reconciling quantum mechanics with Newtonian physics would boost sales of cheap bath towels, it would probably do that as well.

Compared to quantum mechanics, however, the economic advantages of local food are straightforward and easy to calculate. The market for this kind of food is booming, and of course the company wants to cash in. Should Wal-Mart encourage the cultivation of crops that history has shown grow well in certain regions, it would build long-term efficiency into Wal-Mart's supply chain, saving money on transport and packaging.

Wal-Mart also hopes to increase the income of farmers by dealing directly with producers and eliminating middlemen. This seems innocuous enough at first, but it also sounds like one of the mechanisms behind Wal-Mart's habit of killing Main Street businesses in countless towns that it has moved into. Cutting out the middleman while using its huge purchasing power as leverage is how Wal-Mart has been able to infamously starve out its competition—including your neighborhood food co-op.

And while 9 percent certainly adds up to a lot of local food, that leaves 91 percent of Wal-Mart's food purchased from distant factory farms. Wal-Mart continues to buy tomatoes from farms in Immokalee, Fla., for example, where some of the nation's worst labor atrocities have been documented.

In the most optimistic sense, Wal-Mart's new local food initiatives may be driven purely by the realization that saving the world is a good thing because it will guarantee the survival of the global economy it wishes to dominate. If so, we should be hoping for Wal-Mart to decide that solving global warming is good for business as well.

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