What to do when an 800lb. gorilla wants to eat your sustainable lunch

800-pound-tech-company

It’s taken awhile, but I wanted to write a reaction to WalMart’s announcement that it will be offering Wild Oats brand organic foods at prices that are comparable to conventional foods and 25% below prices of branded organic foods. And, it seemed like a good subject to get this blog kicked off! The announcement understandably caused a lot of strong reactions – from general distaste that a company as unapologetically profit-oriented as Walmart would enter a sacred space, to concern for the economic viability of more authentically organic channels.

That said, my reaction to the news was largely positive, with the caveat that consumers have to be re-educated on what it means for food to be organic in 2014.

First off, it should be noted that most Wild Oats products are processed – condiments, sauces, cookies, and pastas etc. While it’s not comparing apples and oranges, it’s important to keep that distinction in mind when assessing the impact it will have on sustainable farming.

To keep things simple, I believe two things to be true about the ‘organic’ label:

1) The consumer perception of what organic means is often divorced from reality. It does not mean sustainable, and the food does not necessarily come from an idyllic farm in a country setting. It is food grown according to increasingly lax specifications administered by the USDA. Nothing more, nothing less. 2) It is still better than a non-organic industrial alternative, which is the majority of what WalMart had sold.

WalMart has the ability to increase the volume of organic food purchases and production at a rate that almost no other entity could match. And, really, what's the alternative? Do we want WalMart to sell the least healthful food that they can? It may help to justify anti-WalMart sentiment, but would it really be better?

Ecologically, this move is a net positive, but the next step is critical: educate consumers on the distinction between ‘sustainable’ food and ‘organic’ food.

Farmers’ market offerings are vastly different (and superior, in my opinion) to an organic output of industrial agriculture in terms of both its ecological and economic impact…. Not to mention taste!

But, do most consumers know that there’s a distinction between ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’?

The concern is that consumers will conflate ‘organic’ and ‘sustainable’ and assume that the organic products at WalMart are equal to what they can purchase at their local farmers’ market, when that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

This is where consumer education, know-your-farmer programs, and the like have to be ambitious and assertive in educating consumers on what it means when food is certified organic vs. when it’s been grown sustainably, or when it’s grown both organically and sustainably.

WalMart is an 800lb. gorilla, and it has the potential to have an enormous impact, both positive and negative, on the foods this nation produces and consumes. That it’s moving us towards more organic foods is a net positive, in my opinion. But, it’s also a sharp reminder to those of us in sustainable food that we need to prepare ourselves to compete with an 800lb. gorilla by being strategic and assertive in how ‘sustainable’ food differentiates itself.