January 24, 2011

Healthier Food to Kill Us Slower. ~ John Cahill

Wal-Mart Sells Red Herring with Less Salt.

Photo Courtesy of Jason Mundy

Wal-Mart announced that over the next five years they will be making select products from their store’s brand (Great Value) more healthy by reducing sodium by 25%, added sugars by 10%, and removing all “industrially produced trans-fats”.

According to a press release the company put out Thursday, they also plan to encourage suppliers of food products to follow their lead, which could have a ripple effect if products by companies like Kraft (in Wal-Mart stores and everywhere else) become healthier.

To make the deal even sweeter, First Lady Michelle Obama—as part of her “Let’s Move” campaign—stood with the company for these announcements and to announce that the stores will be lowering the costs of produce items in order to make fruits and vegetables more affordable to people who might otherwise see processed foods as the only affordable grocery choices. What’s more, they say that the savings will come from, “a variety of sourcing, pricing, and transportation and logistics initiatives that will drive efficiencies throughout the supply chain and further reduce unnecessary costs”, which essentially means that Wal-Mart will not be creating the savings by short changing farmers. Because of the scale of Wal-Mart’s business, even if a farmer sells lettuce a little cheaper, much more of it will sell to a reliable purchaser, which should mean more money to the growers.

All of this seems like good news, and it’s hard to argue that the benefits forecasted aren’t worth it. However, when one considers this from another angle, it can be seen that this is just another way to prop up an unsustainable system. Of course we can all be optimistic about the results that this will have on childhood obesity, heart disease, and type II diabetes, but will it really have an effect?

The company uses the term “key product categories” to describe which food items will be affected, which, according to a New York Times article on the subject, will not include soft drinks. Aside from ignoring the bottles and cans of carbonated corn syrup that are destroying our nation’s health, these measures also ignore the systemic problems in America’s food production and distribution system.

The measures do nothing to end the promotion of monocultures in agriculture. The government subsidies—that encourage the sapping of nutrients from farmable soil by paying farmers to plant and replant the same product annually without crop rotation, and practices that lead to massive amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to be introduced into our natural environment—will only be encouraged as people think that “healthier” processed products are actually “healthy”. Healthier does not mean Healthy.

Photo Courtesy of Whitney & Matt Dellinger

Almost all processed food contains variations on industrial corn. Whether it’s high fructose corn syrup, corn oil, xanthan gum, citric acid, or any of the other restructurings, most everything with an ingredient list contains corn­—the most popular monoculture out there. Efforts like this, while well-intentioned, run the risk of making consumers feel more comfortable eating foods that still contain the same bad stuff that they did before.

Corn is also a key ingredient in cheap meat. Animals, some of which have not evolved to tolerate corn based diets, are fed corn so that vendors like Wal-Mart and your average grocery store can sell farmed salmon, bacon, or dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets cheaper. Wal-Mart’s plan for healthier products does not take cheap, industrial meat into account, which is unfortunate because of the enormous environmental and health impact they could have if they made similar changes to their meat sourcing.

The current system of agriculture in America works on a “bigger is better” model. Our government pays farmers to grow products like dent corn, which is fairly inedible unless it is processed into nutrient void ingredients or if you happen to be a cow on a feedlot. No subsidies are given to independent family farmers that grow food that is actually edible. The farmers at your local farmers market are not rich; they are usually quite poor. They don’t charge that much for a carrot to finance their BMWs; they charge that much because that is what it costs to grow a carrot without pesticides or government subsidies.

Wal-Mart is part of the systemic problem because it relies on and supports the “bigger is better” model. Anyone who regularly shops at a co-op or farmers market may occasionally become frustrated when told, “Sorry, there was a frost and we just didn’t get any blackberries this week.” This is the sort of thing that Wal-Mart tries to avoid by finding large, reliable producers, but once again, we are supporting monocultures. Wal-Mart won’t work with a farm that says, “Sorry, we were only growing sweet corn last year, this year it’s mostly snow peas”, or any diversified farms for that matter.

If a place like Wal-Mart needs to exist, I’m glad that they are making these changes, but Wal-Mart doesn’t need to exist. In a way, I feel like the guy who hopes that gas prices stay at peak levels so that more people want electric cars. When we look at the problem of our country’s food system, in terms of health, affordability, environmental impact, animal rights, human rights, and many other facets, we realize that the structure of the system is completely unsound. If we allow the current “bigger is better” model to continue, childhood obesity will be the least of our concerns.

Wal-Mart is hiding symptoms that are created by a system that it relies on and promotes. This will suppress demand for systemic changes. After all, when gas prices go back down, people stop demanding fuel-efficient cars. The First Lady should be applauded for encouraging Americans to be healthier, but this seems like a lot of fan fare for a project that will simply drag out the war on industrial food. We can be impressed by Wal-Mart’s efforts to support local farmers, make their products healthier, open stores in food deserts, and many other initiatives, but really these are red herrings that stymie efforts for a real, systemic change.

John Cahill is a writer and educator in Chicago. After spending a year living in the Berkshire Mountains, learning about local food systems and volunteering on farms and ranches, he returned to the windy city and continues to promote availability of local, fresh food to the community through volunteer work. You can check out his letters here.

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