The Walmart Dilemma

Sharon October 19th, 2006

Now I’m no fan of Wallyworld, but I found myself there one day last week. I’ve got this cat, you see - he’s an old male, and like some old male cats, he’s prone to urinary tract infections. The only way to prevent them is to feed him special food. I can buy that food from the vet, but the annual food bill for the cat is over $1000 if I do. But Purina makes a reasonably priced brand that does the job. The problem is that no place in 30 miles of me other than Walmart sells it. So once every few months, I go and donate the price of a couple of bags of cat food to the cause of industrialization.

I won’t justify it, except to say that I don’t think spending four times as much gas to go buy it at a Kmart is really all that much better - Kmart being only marginally preferrable, and just as much money going to feed the monster of industrial civilization. And from a purely sociological perspective, Walmart is kind of interesting. For example, I was nearby early one morning, and discovered that really early in the morning, our local Walmart plays Christian devotional music on the PA system. How interesting is that - apparently, only Christians shop early.

One of the things that has interested me the most lately about Walmart is its turn toward organic food. Now this is the most industrial of industrial organics. And they’ve always had some - as long as I’ve lived out this way you could buy organic tofu, Stonyfield farms yogurt and organic goat’s milk. But now there’s a *lot* of organic food. For example, I saw some grapes there - 3xs the price of the conventional grapes, and packaged in a giant plastic clamshell box, lest one of the grapes (which cost 5cents each, I suspect) get squished. But it has a nice, earthy brown paper label, with a picture of a pretty farm, and that all important label “organic” on it.

Target has decided to compete, creating its own organic label. And helpfully, the USDA has relaxed the already not-very stringent rules on what constitutes organic in industrial agriculture. Apparently you can use a little bit of poison here and there, and add some petroleum distillates to your food - just not as much. And, of course, there are no limits on the amount of petroleum permitted to plant, harvest, package, ship, refrigerate, etc… your food. Very few limits on the inhumane treatment of animals, and none at all on the inhumane treatment of human beings, including migrant workers. In fact, organic agriculture often is worse for workers, who don’t get pesticide exposure but do get massive repetetive strain injuries. Industrial organic agriculture is a disaster - just a slightly smaller, milder disaster than regular industrial agriculture. If you don’t believe me, definitely read Michael Pollan’s account of it in _The Omnivore’s Dilemma_.

Now the good thing about Walmart and Target going organic is that millions of people who don’t have food coops, or local farmers will have access to organic food. In fact, Walmart is committed to making it cheap (don’t think too hard about what has to be done on the other end to make it cheap!), so that poor people can have equal access to organics. Lots of people are happy that now they can have pesticide-free food in their little town.

But here’s a question. Is it reasonable to say that the only thing we have to do if we want a safe and sane and just food system is “create demand?” Because that’s what the free market claims is the only obligation we “consumers” (think hard about that word - do you want to be known mostly for your capacity to consume things?) have. If we demand things, the magical market will supply them. But what is left out of this equation is that it won’t really supply what we *want* - it won’t give us the things we dream about, or that we hope for, or that we believe are good and right. Markets and corporations don’t do that - they can’t. They aren’t people, they don’t have a morality, or a sense of justice, or passion or love. Corporations are facsimiles of human beings, stripped of ethics, love, caring, justice and honor. So what they give us is facsimiles of what we truly want and dream of. Thus, you get the organic frozen turkey dinner, with paste-flavored mashed potatoes, instead of the turkey grown by a neighbor and roasted by someone who loves you. The same is true of industrial organic food - it requires so much petroleum, because it is essentially a plastic model of small scale organic food. We are told all we have to do is want, and open our mouths like a baby bird, and the market and corporations will drop something into our open gullets. But let us remember that if all we are going to contribute is demand and an open mouth, we should expect what is dropped into our mouths to be a worm.

The reality is that any decent future asks more of us than simply demanding and wanting. If your community has no access to truly organic, local, sustainably created food, then you need to help create some, not rely on Walmart or Tarjay to produce it. It is easy to rail against corporations, when in fact the reason corporations have so much power is that we have ceded it to them. We have said we don’t have time or knowledge or energy to create just systems, so that we should allow markets to do our work for us. And then we act surprised and outraged when artificial human beings, motivated by greed, fail to live up to our principles. The only possible solution is for us to cease to subcontract our needs and responsibilities out to artificial human beings. Instead, buy things from people, ideally people you know, and put your own work into the system. If there’s no food coop, start one. If there’s no farmer’s market, talk to local farmers about sourcing food or finding them. If all the clothing is made by slaves in the third world, buy used or make your own. Grow some food yourself, maybe even enough to sell. We cannot expect corporate ogliarchy to cease if we are not willing to make it stop, one dollar and one project at a time.

As for me, I’m looking into making my own cat food. As much of a learning experience as my trip to Walmart was, more is being asked of me. And you.


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