Youve probably heard by now that the worlds largest retailer (I think you all know who Im talking about) is planning to expand the organic offerings at its stores. The response has been mixed; some are standing and cheering, others are up in arms and ready to fight. Personally, I have to admit that my initial, visceral reaction was a negative one, but Im still in my chair, trying to figure out how to respond.
For my own reasons, I must admit that I am not a customer of said retail giant, and, despite an expansion in their organic product line, I seriously doubt I will be convinced to become one. Nonetheless, I most certainly recognize that a majority of Americans are regulars at this store, and I understand the enormous economic and social impact its offerings have upon our society.
So what does increased organic product availability at this mega retailer mean for organic as a whole?
First, I have to think a larger organic line at this store will give a boost to organic product exposure and sales. Since so many people shop there, I am willing to bet organic foods and products will be put in front of shoppers who have either had no awareness of organic or have never before had the motivation to seek organics.
Convenience plays a huge factor in food sales, as evidenced by the fact that the majority of organic food is sold through conventional food stores. For better or worse, for many shoppers, organic couldnt be much more convenient than this. If the organic retail market grows as a result, that means a further increase in demand for organic farm products and motivation for more farmers to transition to certified organic production.
In addition, the retail giants influence will force more food corporations and shipping companies to become familiar with the standards for organic manufacturing, transportation and identity preservation.
Still, I am not as certain an increase in awareness and convenience will necessarily lead to an increase in education about, or advocacy for, organic food. I hope information about the benefits of organic food production seeps into consumers minds simply by reading labels, but I worry organic food purchases will be governed predominantly by pricing.
If the store has to lower consumer purchase prices to move organic product, they will likely pressure vendors to keep their selling prices lower, too. This could, in turn, bring downward pressure on the prices organic food growers receive for their farm products, thus forcing an up-sizing in organic farms to approach economies-of-scale.
Basic economics tells us that, as more producers enter the organic marketplace, price premiums for organic products will go down, whether this retailer expands its organic product line. Yet, I am also concerned the retail giant will begin sourcing cheaper organic products from other parts of the world where workers are paid much lower wages. Granted, foreign farms have as much right to compete and survive in a global marketplace as domestic farms, but I hope that such products can be traded fairly and minimize fossil fuel consumption in their distribution.
Organic food has clearly come into its own. It is a multi-billion-dollar industry with such large demand that the worlds largest retailer has decided to get in on the action. I want organics to be available to everyone, but I think we must be cautious about how much power and influence mega-corporations have over the standards that govern organic production, distribution and pricing. I would prefer farmers and organic consumers to have majority control over organic standards.
Also, shopping at mega-stores, although cheap and convenient, is not necessarily a good replacement for buying organic and local foods from independent retailers and nearby family farms. Global organic does have some benefits, but eating local, seasonal organic food from farmers you know is liable to get you food that is fresher, tastier, potentially more nutritious, and has more positive economic and social impacts on your community.
Organic demand is increasing, and the organic industry is growing, so we must take the good with the bad. Still, we can all be conscientious consumers who think about the repercussions of our food purchases and play active roles in governance that affects our food.
If you only shop at mega retail stores, look into the organic section and see what you can learn. If you currently shop at farms, farmers markets and specialty stores, dont let the convenience of the giant retailers let you forget about the benefits of buying from farms, farmers markets and specialty stores.
Andy Larson works with the Initiative for the Development of Entrepreneurs in Agriculture in University of Illinois Extension. He can be reached at (815) 397-7714 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the May 10-16, 2006, issue