RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Never Give a Gorilla an Even Break

Pop Quiz Story Problem: A cut-rate retailer finds that its bargain-seeking customers are too broke to buy because of poor public policies that the retailer's own lobbyists have encouraged. As the most powerful player in the universe, does the retailer a) promote better policies or b) grab new markets.

If you chose "b," you get full credit for figuring out Wal-Mart's game.

At the corporation's annual meeting, CEO F. Lee Scott announced that Wal-Mart will become a kinder, gentler 800-pound gorilla by selling organic foods. Its customers who are generally low-income people, have found better bargains at the dollar stores, so Wally World will go after wealthier spenders.

If Wal-Mart really wants to help consumers, they'll turn their lobbyists to creating real policy changes. Fix the health-care system, raise the minimum wage. But an 800-pound gorilla doesn't really want to make changes.

Instead, they'll grab new markets. Organic crops are produced in accordance to certain USDA standards. The standards approve inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides or seeds that come from the earth. This means that instead of applying fertilizers made from petroleum by-products, the farmer pours fish emulsion or manure on the land.

From the beginning, old-style organic farmers have criticized these standards. These old-style producers, who struggle to find an adjective to describe themselves, using "natural," "chemical-free" and "sustainable," argue that the old-style organic farm was about lifestyle and health rather than a set system. The old-style organics, pioneered by the Rodale Institute and others, adopted and perfected techniques that had worked for generations.

The traditions included raising animals and composting their manure before applying it to the land. And they paired various types of crops in the same bed to see if one repelled the pests that might attack the other. This "companion planting" was often effective in plots maintained by hand, but is impossible for machinery to deal with. The giant machines that industry favors can't distinguish between a carrot and a tomato plant and, therefore, will trundle down the row pulling carrots and tomatoes together.

Consumers don't really understand farming, however, and usually believe the PR put out by USDA and the industry. Thus, the organic standards have been promoted by the organics industry and USDA as solving three problems: They are supposed to be better for the land, the American farmer and the American consumer.

Unfortunately, none of these wishes have come true. As industry has adopted organics, they've benefited from the definition rather than learned from the traditions. Using fish emulsion, which is a by-product of fishing from giant trawlers, the industry depletes ocean fisheries. And transporting the fish emulsion from the oceans to the Midwest has burned immeasurable amounts of fossil fuels.

Another fertilizer, manure from CAFOs -- or Confined Animal Feeding Operations -- comes from the Midwest, but presents its own problems. CAFOs pollute the air and water, and the effluent may be loaded with chemicals because operators can put industrially-produced grains and medications into a CAFO, feed it to the animals, and call it organic after it passes through their digestive systems.

And is industrial organic good for the American farmer? At one time, organic crops brought more money but organic grain crops in North America are threatened with extinction. That's because industry has promoted genetically-engineered, a.k.a. GMO, a.k.a. transgenic crops. These have been modified from the natural to include the genes of bacteria, other plants, or animals.

Pollen, which is the sperm of a plant, flies all over the place. So North American organic farmers often learn when that their entire crops are polluted by GMO pollination. As a result of the pollution, organic processors don't use American grains. Instead, they import grains from continents that have banned GMOs. Importation takes more fossil fuels, of course.

And is organic food good for the American consumer? There are no standards to control the recipes for, say, organic chips and other processed foods. The organic product can have just as much salt, fat, and sugar as other products. Also, due to industry-driven changes in the USDA organic standards, there are increasing numbers of flavoring and coloring allowed in processed organic foods.

If you want to make changes in your own food system, however, you can. Visit your local farmers market to purchase fresh foods from your own state. The joy of knowing your food providers can never come from a one-word label. It can only happen if you create a relationship with producers. Ask us what inputs we use -- fertilizers, anti-pest strategies, seeds -- and ask if we have field days to bring you to our places. Many farms even provide opportunities to volunteer.

And increasing numbers of farmers are getting into processing, to make it easier for you to use local products. Look for local jams and sauces, juices, baked goods, cheeses and meats. Again, ask the producer what goes into the products.

When you find things you like, sell the idea to bigger buyers. Schools, hospitals, office cafeterias, retailers looking for a difference can all benefit by using local products. In fact, when you buy local, everyone benefits -- except the 800-pound gorillas.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, July 1, 2006

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