Walmart plans to announce on Thursday that it is putting its muscle behind Wild Oats organic products, offering the label at prices that will undercut brand-name organic competitors by at least 25 percent.
The move by Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer and grocer, is likely to send shock waves through the organic market, in which an increasing number of food companies and retailers are seeking a toehold.
“We’re removing the premium associated with organic groceries,” said Jack L. Sinclair, executive vice president of Walmart U.S.’s grocery division. The Wild Oats organic products will be priced the same as similar nonorganic brand-name goods.
So good, right? Well, yes and no. One of the legitimate criticisms of organic food is that it is too pricey, making it something for the nation’s elite. This would help reduce that. But what is the real cost of cheaper organics? Who makes up the difference? It certainly isn’t Wal-Mart. Rather, we can expect Wal-Mart to do what it does on apparel and foreign-made consumer products–put the screws on producers to lower production costs. That means labor, especially in a food production system without the same kind of chemical inputs as conventional food. How will the workers producing this food be treated? The article is silent on this, as are most similar articles that focus on this issue from the perspective of consumers and to a lesser extent from the corporate view. The voices and views of labor are completely erased from the conversation. And if we know one thing from Wal-Mart, it’s that people at work will suffer to produce this food.
As Mark Bittman has argued, food costs need to be higher and wages need to go up in order to allow the poor to eat it. This of course means in part taking the world back from the retail corporate domination of the Wal-Marts, Targets, and Gaps. A tall order, but just offering cheaper organic food under an exploitative labor system is not much of an answer to our ailing food system.