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Can you Walmart your way to a healthy local food economy?

Dear friends:

If you haven't seen all the hubbub about Walmart's global sustainability initiative announced on Oct. 14th, check these out:

http://walmartstores.com/Video/?id=1225

http://walmartstores.com/pressroom/news/10376.aspx

I met one of the consultants working with Walmart HQ on this initiative when I was in Europe last year on tour of Biodynamic farms with farmer John.  I realized I had met this consultant back at the Earth Summit in 1992 in Brazil.  I like him and he is very sharp and creative.  He was convinced that Walmart was going to take a leap ahead of many nonprofits and governments with this initiative.  It has specific targets by country that it will monitor over the years -- these include reducing pesticide use, reducing water use, reducing green house gases, reducing deforestation, increasing small and medium farm incomes, increasing amount of locally sourced produce, etc.

I certainly am the first to be suspect of anything that consolidates economic and political power in the hands of the few -- in this case Walmart.  At the same time, I marvel at how they are adopting much of what we in the sustainable ag circles have been advocating and how focused and businesslike they are in pursuing their targets.  On this level, governments, nonprofits and the sustainable ag movement could learn from them.  

I don't doubt that Walmart can push farmers, people along the food chain, and consumers to shift towards more sustainable farming practices.  I am more doubtful that they will ever promote a more decentralized and diversified agricultural economy. I am doubtful that they will push the rights of ag workers.  I don't doubt that they will train a million farmers to use driptape irrigation and save water, but I am doubtful that they will train a million farmers on how to form cooperative or associative enterprises, or train farmers how to direct-market to consumers or to market outside of Walmart.

On some level, I think that all of the early adopters and innovators of sustainable agriculture can feel vindicated and proud that such a mainstream giant is coming our way and will pull millions of producers and consumers along with them towards some important sustainability targets.  On the other hand, let's not forget that Walmart is not embracing all aspects of sustainability. I don't think we'll see them underwriting conferences for the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies or the United Farmworkers Union.  Walmart is not proposing to measure whether local economies are more locally owned, self-reliant, diversified and they are not proposing to measure whether agricultural workers have improved livelihoods (better wages, working conditions, etc).

As someone who hasn't shopped in Walmart for decades, I'm not sure I'll start giving my money and spiritual energy to them now.  However, I'm pleased to know they will raise the bar for all of us.  

I'd love to hear your impressions.  In the meantime, check out:

http://www.livingeconomies.org

It's the website of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies and it offers a more holistic business approach to sustainability. 

Warmly, Tom Spaulding

Executive Director, Angelic Organics Learning Center