Wal-Mart Redefines Local Food

Wal-Mart defines local produce as that grown and sold in the same state.

Today’s New York Times addresses Wal-Mart’s latest plan: increase the percentage of local produce to 9%–a percentage that doubles the current figure. I had to think long and hard about my local Wal-Mart, located in a midwestern college town (think smack dab in the center of the farm belt). The town supports a local foods co-op, several CSAs, and the local grocers supply–and prominently display–local items (not just produce). The town supports two farmers markets, plus a dozen or so farm stands during the season. Thinking about Wal-Mart, the last time I went in there (let’s admit it, it’s no worse than Target ethically speaking), could I picture any local produce displayed?


Corn and apples. Now I’m sure it would be pumpkins and apples. Or something like that.

Damn. When did Wal-Mart start doing this? I’m sure it has to do with the sustainability goals they put in place. Of course, as the Wal-Mart rep in the article points out, of the 39 sustainability goals, only 4 have to do with food. That seems problematic, but since I haven’t yet read all 39 of those goals, perhaps it’s not too much of a problem. I’m not informed enough to argue this yet. I will later, I’m sure, now that it’s been brought to my attention.

My local SuperTarget doesn’t seem to carry local produce. This troubles me.

But what troubles me at least as much is Wal-Mart’s definition of “local” food. Local food, according to Wal-Mart comes from the same state the Wal-Mart is located in. Okay, why is this a problem. Think about the big states and how far food might travel to get to a particular Wal-Mart. I think about the super Wal-Mart that opened when I was in high school. It was located in North Carolina, only 4-5 miles from the border of SC. But produce coming from a farm in South Carolina, under these rules, wouldn’t be listed as “local” even if it was from a farm only 15 miles away. However, if it came from say, Asheville–a little over a hundred miles away–it would be local. It seems to me there’s a problem with this mindset.

And perhaps that speaks to a larger problem in the local foods movement. We don’t have a real definition of local. Some locavores will argue that “regionally produced” food is still local (at least it didn’t get on an airplane is the basic tenet of this argument, I believe). Others say it needs to be less than 100 miles. Or 50. Or 25. It seems to depend on what part of the country the person making the argument is from. In farm country, even conventional corn-and-beans country, it’s not hard to get local produce–at least during the growing season. In California, it’s not too hard to get local produce year-round. Same with Florida. But what of Iowa? Vermont? Michigan? Places with cold seasons that aren’t ideal for growing? Or New Mexico or Arizona which have been turned into large tracts of rangeland, suitable for grazing (but probably not)–but definitely not for sustainably farming. The irrigation issues in places like these isn’t always prohibitive, but it probably should be.

How can we define local, as a society? Let’s start a dialogue about that.

But back to Wal-Mart: Wal-Mart’s managed to drive any number of small businesses into closing because they simply cannot compete with the low prices the store advertises. How will small farmers manage to compete with the lower prices available on conventional produce from Mexico or Chile or Uruguay or New Zealand? What stipulations will Wal-Mart place on these farmers, aside from strict protocols on pesticide, fertilizer, and water use?

Perhaps, as the article points out, since Wal-Mart has the potential to be a major force of change within the agrifoods system–and on the commerce in America (not to mention other places in the world), they should consider thinking beyond the usual sustainability box. Sure, there appears to be a growing demand for local produce and in many ways this can be more sustainable–depending on who does the cost accounting. But what of the pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that are winding up on our land and in our water?

Glyphosate is a “broad spectrum” herbicide used to keep down weeds (which, by the way, field mice would be perfectly happy to do. And if field mice weren’t enough, companion planting and increasing the aeration of the soil can both decrease weeds and other “pests.”) on both the commercial and individual level. It’s a primary ingredient in Round-Up.

Glyphosate, according to the EPA, is noncarcinogenic and relatively low in toxicity–at least for humans. However, indicator species, such as frogs indicate that the chemical has other problems. Remember those transgendered frogs that made the news a few years ago? A 2005 study linked this to glyphosate.

Even if glyphosate isn’t the problem–even if it is safe–what does it do in concert with all the other chemicals entering out water system? Glyphostate supposedly persists in aquatic environments for two months. But in the midwest, during the growing season, there’s a constant level of glyphosate in the major water systems beyond what the EPA recognizes as safe. Des Moines Water Works has the largest glyphostate treatment facility in the world because of how much glyphosate comes through the South Skunk River–which provides water to the city of Des Moines. The glyphostate cleaned from the water simply gets dumped back into the river. It’s supposedly the safest way to dispose of the extras.

Wait a minute? If it’s not harmful, then why is safety a consideration? Just a thought.

Maybe Wal-Mart will concentrate some of those efforts of monitoring pesticide, fertilizer, and water use on issues like this. I’m not holding my breath.

But while we’re waiting to see what position they take between now and 2015, we can consider this: a map of the Roundup resistant weed species. Notice the

From the USDA

line along the Mississippi (Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas). Think about all the glyphosate and motor oil, the fertilizers from golf courses and flushed pharmaceuticals, the antifreeze and animal waste. Think about the fact Iowa’s flooded in a pretty serious way twice in the past two years. Think about the Mississippi flood of 1993.

Think about the fact that California and New Mexico and Arizona are salinating their soils through irrigation. Think about how many tons of herbicides and pesticides are applied each year to each acre of cropland. In the Midwest, as of 1998, 140 million kilograms (more than 154,323 tons) of herbicide alone were applied along the Mississippi River basin.
That’s more than half the herbicides used on cropland in the total US.
Maybe Wal-Mart’s move to support smaller local farmers will make a difference. But keep in mind, these smaller local farmers aren’t necessarily using more sustainable practices. In fact, some of them may not be able to realistically afford more sustainable practices. They’re just not as big.

2 thoughts on “Wal-Mart Redefines Local Food

  1. Just discovered your blog through awindram’s Culturally Discombobulated–it’s a pleasure to find it. I’ve been thinking about the idea of “local” since I moved to New Mexico from Vermont a few years ago. Here in NM the availability of water is obviously the biggest issue–very little of the state is arable, unless it lies along one of the river valleys. A lot of the river land along the Rio Grande here in Albuquerque, for example (which used to consist of farms irrigated with acequias), has been sold to developers and subdivided for suburban style neighborhoods. Many of those who are still farming are elderly and have no mortgage any more, so they are growing only alfalfa–an easy cash crop that pays for the property taxes but doesn’t contribute to the (human) food supply. The result is that even at the natural foods co-op, which is *deeply* committed to local farmers, “local” often means Texas or Colorado–several hundred miles away. That’s not necessarily because we have a loose definition of local: Texas and Colorado are just the closest places where food is grown. This should trouble us. Actually, this should *terrify* us here in the southwest, but for some reason it doesn’t. I think that “local” here is eventually going to mean “in my backyard,” because there aren’t many other options. Water rights are king here–a farmer (or rancher) can’t just up and decide to irrigate more, because chances are good that the water has already been committed to someone farther down the line.

    Most of the grazing land in dry states, for what it’s worth, is not irrigated. (I may have been reading you incorrectly, but I think you were assuming that it was like midwestern grazing lands–lush green stuff. It isn’t. I beg your pardon if I’m in error!) The ranchers here raise primarily Angus beef cattle, which range over vast areas of scrub desert for the first few years of their lives before being shipped to holding pens in gentler states where they’re fattened on midwestern grain. Unless a rancher allows his/her cattle to overgraze, the impact on the land is generally minimal: no herbicides/pesticides/fertilizers, because it’s all plain old needlegrass/cholla/sagebrush desert, which is remarkably nourishing, even if it isn’t fattening. So we nurture (OK, that’s a little ironic out here) the cows through their early years before selling them to midwesterners and then buying back the tenderized, fattened, processed meat, which requires fuel for shipping both ways, plus all the nastiness inherent in massive grain production and feedlot culture. It’s all remarkably inefficient, to put the best word on it I can. But the only reason that the land is used for grazing is that it is completely unsuitable for farming or otherwise inhabiting, because most likely whatever water might be found on it has already been claimed by someone down the river.

    1. Hi Stacy and thank you for your comment. I’m actually from Texas originally and understand the scrubland conditions of the grazing areas. What I was trying to convey (though perhaps not clearly enough): part of the reason that this land in the desert Southwest looks the way it does right now has precisely to do with overgrazing. Cattle (even here in the Midwest) eat the tender lovely things first and then less desireable plants from an ecological perspective have the opportunity to move in. Ranchers (here and there) who use mob grazing techniques in theory have less problem with this (I don’t know enough about it to pass judgement) because the cattle are on a relatively confined area where they eat down everything and then are moved to new areas for a long enough period for the “mob grazed” land to recover–at least in theory. Often patch-burning is associated with this grazing practice here in the Midwest, but I don’t know about other places. Combined with patch burning (and probably some other nuanced things I don’t know enough about), mob grazing allows forbs to re-enter the area. This lessens the negative impact of grazing on the land because the cattle don’t just eat the things they find tasty–and eventually just the things that they’ll eat, even if they don’t find them tasty.

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