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Wal-Mart sustainability strategy drawing more critical crossfire

Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott has invested considerable time and effort trying to make the world's largest retailer a more environmentally friendly, “sustainable” company in recent months. So a press release issued by The Cornucopia Institute accusing the company of “declaring war on organic farmers” probably won't sit well.

Wal-Mart executives announced earlier this year they would greatly increase the number of organic products on their shelves and price them at a target of 10 percent above conventional food costs. Organic food watchdog groups like The Cornucopia Institute were wary.

“We have received scores of press inquiries over the past few months asking us if Wal-Mart's organic expansion was good news or bad news for the industry,” said Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst for the Wisconsin-based Institute.

“My stock answer has been: ‘If Wal-Mart lends their logistical prowess to organic food, both farmers and consumers will be big winners by virtue of a more competitive marketplace. However, if Wal-Mart applies their standard business model, and, in essence, Wal-Marts organics, then everyone will lose.’”

Kastel says Wal-Mart appears to be headed down the latter path, creating a “new” organic — food from corporate agribusiness, factory farms and cheap imports of questionable quality to quote from the press release.

“Organic family farmers in this country could see their livelihoods disintegrate the same way so many industrial workers saw their family-supporting wages evaporate as Wal-Mart and other big box retailers put the screws to manufacturers — forcing a production shift to China and other low-wage countries.”

He cited Wal-Mart's recent introduction of its own private-labeled organic milk packaged by Aurora Organic Dairy. “Aurora, based in Boulder, Colo., has faced a maelstrom of organic industry criticism for operating a number of industrial-scale dairies with thousands of cows confined in feedlot-like conditions.”

Besides the Wal-Mart/Aurora factory-farm connection, The Cornucopia Institute is also concerned with the company's decision to lower the per-unit cost on organic products by collaborating with China.

“Even if it were not for many serious concerns about the propriety of the certification process in China — and the fact that USDA has provided little, if any, regulatory oversight there — food shipped around the world, burning fossil fuels and undercutting domestic farmers, does not meet the consumer's traditional definition of organic,” said Kastel.

Wal-Mart's textile sustainability team met with the American Cotton Producers at their meeting with The Cotton Foundation in San Antonio in August. They obviously were trying to diffuse producer ire over statements like those by Scott that Wal-Mart's sale of 190,000 cotton yoga outfits had saved the equivalent of two jumbo jet loads of pesticides.

Calling the figure a misquote, the Wal-Mart staffers said they were still learning about sustainability and wanted to work with groups like the National Cotton Council. They said organics probably wouldn't amount to more than 1 percent of the textile products in their stores.

Sounds like Wal-Mart officials need to schedule a similar meeting with organic farmers.

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