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retread| Whole Foods v. the Local, Organic Farmer 3 February 2007

Posted by EDITOR in Economics, Culture, VARANGALI.
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Retreads are quality posts from yesterweeks that are given a second run on Saturdays. This piece was originally posted by VARANGALI on 10 Oct 2006.

Proponents of the organic food movement often argue that organic goods are not expensive-–-it is conventional produce that is artificially inexpensive.

Organic foods seem elitist only because industrial food is artificially cheap, with its real costs being charged to the public purse, the public health and the environment.
– Alice Waters

Agreed – massive subsidies going into the corn industry lead to a surplus of cheap high fructose corn syrup, which in turn lowers the cost of high calorie unhealthy fare, from coke to fake maple syrup (Disclosure: as I write, I’m sipping coke and eating boiled corn). But can everyone really afford to shop organic and local?

I live down the street from a regular grocer and the Whole Foods Market. The price difference is significant, and on a student budget I cannot afford the organic superstar grocer. And a superstar it is: Whole Foods has sales of $4.7 billion each year, more than four times that of its closest competitor. Whole Foods has become rich off of making organic eating an expensive lifestyle choice for the health- and environment-conscious yuppie, and is often called “Whole Paycheck” and “Wholesome, healthy, for the wholesome, wealthy.”

The organic revolution was never meant to be this way – small, local farms producing small quantities of cheap and mouth-watering fruits and vegetables were supposed to wean America away from its junk food addiction. But farmers’ markets everywhere were dominated by Whole Foods’ effective muddying of the line between “organic” and “local.”

Giving plenty of advertising – but little shelf space – to local farmers and goods, Whole Foods has maintained an image of being a virtuous supporter of the local farmer. For example, it proudly advertises the fact that most organic farms are small and locally run, but cleverly overlooks that most organic produce in the United States is grown on five or six huge, corporation-run farms in California, and much is imported from similar operations abroad.

Now that Wal-Mart has announced a major entry into the organic food market, many fear that organic food will now become commoditized – cheap but concentrated in a few, exploitative hands. Wal-Mart entering any market is rarely ever good – but the organic movement was co-opted by Big Business long before Wal-Mart. It was co-opted when Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey famously compared unionization of his workers to herpes and fired those who tried to unionize, when corporation-farmed organic food from Chile masqueraded as local produce, and when we bought into the idea of pesticide-free food as a progressive shopping experience instead of a basic necessity.

Note: feel free to read my post on Trader Joe’s, which is inching on Whole Foods’ territory with innovation and less duplicity.

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Comments»

1. bingregory - 5 February 2007

assalamu alaykum,

Great post. Avoid corporate organic by buying directly from the farm. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is one model for doing this. Those in the Detroit area can check out my father’s CSA, Three Roods Farm:

http://webpages.charter.net/rmallor/

2. Abdallah B. Stickley - 10 February 2007

As-salam alaikum, We used to call it “Whole Paycheck.” Small and local is really the answer. A little ingenuity goes a long way, and so does personal interaction. Organize a co-op and things become much cheaper.


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