Well, it’s happened. Wal-Mart has announced a new, major push into organic foods. Depending on where you come down on the purported virtue of organics, this is either the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning.
It most certainly marks the end of the heyday of organic farming. And by that I mean the small-production high-margin model that has made organic farming one of the very few profitable niches in contemporary American agriculture. From here on out we’ll be witnessing the inexorable march of organic produce from highly localized specialty food to mass-marketed commodity. In other words, we’ll be witnessing its commercial success.
Whether it’s the kind of success that the classical proponents of organic food really want is the question. One of its more or less immediate effects will be to depress prices, at least on the farm, since more purchasing means more production which means more competition. An organic spinach grower in southern California will now be competing in the same market as growers in Texas, Arkansas, even Israel for that matter. All are going to want a piece of the big organic spanakopita.
Another thing that mass market organic will mean is an explosion of organic processed foods. Yes, you heard that right, organic processed food. As anyone who has attended many of the big national food ingredient and/or technology shows can attest, large food companies have been building toward mass-market organics for quite a while. But while the technology to make an organic TV dinner may have been in place for years, the raw materials have been conspicuously absent. Which is to say, as much as Stouffer’s may have wanted to make an organic lasagna entree, lack of a steady volume of organic wheat, cheese and tomatoes, to say nothing of organic oregano has prevented them from doing so.
Yet now that’s poised to change, and looking back, we may well have this move by Wal-Mart to thank. For by taking organic to the main stream they will be effectively converting a network of small local organic markets into one big national, even global one, with all the concomitant advantages (notably price) and drawbacks (notably quality). But that’s what happens when you hit the big time baby.