Editorial: November/December 2010
How the mighty have fallen … for the hype
By Marg Land
Many, many years ago, when I was a young, idealistic, earnest university
student, my friends and I used to climb aboard the Bloor subway line
and make our once-a-week trip west to Roncesvalles Village, home to
Toronto’s largest grocery store.
Many, many years ago, when I was a young, idealistic, earnest university student, my friends and I used to climb aboard the Bloor subway line and make our once-a-week trip west to Roncesvalles Village, home to Toronto’s largest grocery store.
The place was enormous and staffed by a skeleton crew of harried, overworked cashiers, stock clerks and cleaners who never stopped moving – ever. Despite this, the place always looked disorganized and very dingy in the corners. The staff was continually cleaning up aisle spills and never seemed to have enough time to sort through the stock before new items were piled on top.
We didn’t mind. The store had amazing sales and we were poor students, willing to fork out subway fare to purchase the 50-cent bologna and hotdogs or the $2 cases of Kraft Dinner and Mister Noodle. Actually, the poor maintenance and management of the store, particularly the meat department, led to one of our favourite shopping games – who could find the bluest meat. Inevitably, it was usually my friend Justin, an aerospace engineering student from Saskatchewan, who would win the contest, patiently spending half an hour digging through four feet of hotdogs to find the festering packages at the bottom.
I admit it was a weird game. My only excuse is we didn’t get out much.
Anyway, as can be imagined, that particular grocery model proved to be unsustainable and the store chain eventually went belly up.
Let’s return to the present day. Big-box grocery shopping is back with a vengeance. Once a week, I’m back to hiking the miles of aisles in search of the deals, which basically don’t exist. The difference is, instead of Toronto, I’m shopping in my local small town. It’s also (thank goodness) a lot harder to find blue meat. Big business eventually found a way to make the model work and we’re stuck with it.
Now big-box business has locked on to another new business fad: sustainability. Recently, Wal-Mart announced it is launching a “new global commitment” designed to promote sustainable farming techniques among its suppliers. The new scheme will be based on these three areas:
- Supporting farmers and their communities,
- Producing more food with less waste and fewer resources, and
- Sustainably sourcing key agricultural products.
At first glance, the commitment seems a noble gesture. There is talk of increasing farmers’ incomes by 10 to 15 per cent and a movement within Canadian stores toward sourcing 30 per cent of produce locally by Dec. 31, 2013 – welcome news.
But much of the focus appears to be on emerging markets.
“More than one billion people around the world rely on farming and hundreds of millions of them live on less than $2 per day,” says Mike Duke, president and CEO of Wal-Mart.
“Our efforts will help increase farmer incomes, lead to more efficient use of pesticides, fertilizer and water, and provide fresher produce for our customers.”
Wal-Mart is not alone in its embrace of the sustainable agriculture movement. Five days after the big-box store chain made its announcement, PepsiCo announced its plans to “revolutionize farming” with its new, web-based, i-crop precision farming technology, launched initially in the United Kingdom.
“I-crop has the potential to revolutionize the way we farm, enabling our farmers to save costs and water and carbon consumption, while at the same time improving their yields,” says Richard Evans, president of PepsiCo UK and Ireland.
As well, the company is trialling low-carbon fertilizers and plans on replacing more than 75 per cent of its U.K. potato stock with varieties that use less water and have increased yields.
You have to hand it to these companies – they sure make it sound like they understand farming. But, let’s be honest, what do corporate Walmart and PepsiCo really know about producing food? Do they really think some big announcement hailing a new approach to corporate management is going to lead to more “sustainable” farming practices? After all, wasn’t it big business demand for cheap produce that led to these alleged unsustainable agricultural practices? Now they suddenly know better?
Here’s an idea: leave the farmers alone. Through their own know-how and skill set, they’ll find the most economical and hardy varieties to grow, the ones that require fewer pesticides, fungicides, water and fertilizers but still produce the best yields. In return, you buy more from them at a fair price. ❦