Eaters, beware: Walmart is taking over our food system
Aubretia Edick has worked at a Walmart store in upstate New York for 11 years, but she won’t buy fresh food there. Bagged salads, she claims, are often past their sell-by dates and, in the summer, fruit is sometimes kept on shelves until it rots. “They say, ‘We’ll take care of it,’ but they don’t. As a cashier, you hear a lot of people complain,” she said.

Edick blames the problems on the store’s chronic understaffing and Walmart’s lack of respect for the skilled labor needed to handle the nation’s food supply. At her store, a former maintenance person was made produce manager. He’s often diverted to other tasks. “If the toilets get backed up, they call him,” she said.

Tracie McMillan, who did a stint working in the produce section of a Walmart store while researching her forthcoming book, The American Way of Eating, reports much the same. “They put a 20-year-old from electronics in charge of the produce department. He didn’t know anything about food,” she said. “We had a leak in the cooler that didn’t get fixed for a month and all this moldy food was going out on the floor.” Walmart doesn’t accept the idea that “a supermarket takes any skill to run,” she said. “They treated the produce like any other kind of merchandise.”

That’s plenty to give a shopper pause, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to reasons to be concerned about Walmart’s explosive expansion into the grocery sector.

Growth of a giant

In just a few short years, Walmart has become the most powerful force in our food system, more dominant than Monsanto, Kraft, or Tyson.

It was only 23 years ago that Walmart opened its first supercenter, a store with a full supermarket inside. By 1998, it was still a relatively modest player with 441 supercenters and about 6 percent of U.S. grocery sales. Last year, as its supercenter count climbed above 3,000, Walmart captured 25 percent of the $550 billion Americans spent on groceries.

As astonishing as Walmart’s national market share is, in many parts of the country the chain is even more dominant. In 29 metro markets, it accounts for more than 50 percent of grocery sales.

Seeking an even bigger piece of the pie, Walmart is campaigning to blanket New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and other big cities with its stores. It has made food the centerpiece of its public relations strategy. In a series of announcements over the last year, Walmart has deftly commandeered high-profile food issues, presenting itself as a solution to food deserts, a force for healthier eating, and a supporter of local farming.

It is a remarkably brazen tactic. On every one of these fronts, Walmart is very much part of the problem. Its expansion is making our food system more concentrated and industrialized than ever before. Its growth in cities will likely exacerbate poverty, the root cause of constrained choices and poor diet. And the more dominant Walmart becomes, the fewer opportunities there will be for farmers markets, food co-ops, neighborhood grocery stores, and a host of other enterprises that are beginning to fashion a better food system — one organized not to enrich corporate middlemen, but to the benefit of producers and eaters.

The big squeeze

Walmart’s rise as a grocer triggered two massive waves of industry consolidation in the late 1990s and early 2000s. One occurred among supermarkets, as regional titans like Kroger and Fred Meyer combined to form national chains that stood a better chance of surviving Walmart’s push into groceries. Today, the top five food retailers capture half of all grocery sales, double the share they held in 1997.

Walmart truck.Go big or go out of business.Photo: Walmart StoresThe second wave of consolidation came as meatpackers, dairy companies, and other food processors merged in an effort to be large enough to supply Walmart without getting crushed in the process. The takeover of IBP, the nation’s largest beef processor, by Tyson Fresh Meats is a prime example. “When Tyson bought IBP in 2001, they said they had to do that in order to supply Walmart. We saw horizontal integration in the meat business because of worries about access to the retail market,” explained Mary Hendrickson, a food systems expert at the University of Missouri. Four firms now slaughter more than 80 percent of cattle. A similar dynamic has played out in nearly every segment of food manufacturing.

“The consolidation of the last two decades has created a food chain that’s shaped like an hourglass,” noted Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, explaining that a handful of middlemen now stand between 2 million farmers and 300 million eaters.

Their tight grip on our food supply has, rather predictably, come at the expense of both ends of the hourglass. Grocery prices have been rising faster than inflation and, while there are multiple factors driving up consumer costs, some economic research points to concentration in both food manufacturing and retailing as a leading culprit.

Farmers, meanwhile, are getting paid less and less. Take pork, for example. Between 1990 and 2009, the farmers’ share of each dollar consumers spent on pork fell from 45 to 25 cents, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. Pork processors picked up some of the difference, but the bulk of the gains went to Walmart and other supermarket chains, which are now pocketing 61 cents of each pork dollar, up from 45 cents in 1990.

Another USDA analysis found that big retailers have used their market power to shortchange farmers who grow apples, lettuce, and other types of produce, paying them less than what they would get in a competitive market, while also charging consumers inflated prices. In this way, Walmart has actually helped drive overall food prices up.

What Walmart means when it says “local”

Last year, Walmart announced that it would double the share of local produce it sells, from 4.5 to 9 percent, over six years.

Georgia peaches. Come and get your Georgia peaches.Photo: Walmart StoresThis doesn’t necessarily mean shoppers will soon find a variety of local produce at their nearest Walmart, however. Walmart counts fruits and vegetables as local if they come from within the same state. It can achieve much of its promise by buying more of each state’s major commodity crops, such as peaches in Georgia and apples in Washington, and by using big states like California, Texas, and Florida, where both supercenters and large-scale farming are prevalent, to pump up its national average.

“It speaks to the weakness that we’ve all known about, which is that ‘local’ is an inadequate descriptor of what we want,” said Andy Fisher, former executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition. “It’s not just geography; it’s scale and ownership and how you treat your workers. Walmart is doing industrial local.”

Walmart’s sourcing is becoming somewhat more regional, but the change has more to do with rising diesel prices than a shift in favor of small farms. It’s a sign that Walmart’s Achilles heel — the fossil-fuel intensity of its far-flung distribution system — might be catching up with it. According toThe Wall Street Journal, trucking produce like jalapeños across the country from California or Mexico has become so expensive that the retailer is now seeking growers within 450 miles of its distribution centers.

“They see the writing on the wall. They know the cost of shipping from California back to Georgia and Mississippi is high now,” said Ben Burkett, a Mississippi farmer who noted that Walmart is now meeting with producers in his region. He’s hoping to sell the chain okra through a cooperative of 35 farmers. “We’ll see. My experience in the past with Walmart is they want to pay as little as possible.”

That skepticism is shared by Anthony Flaccavento, a Virginia farmer and sustainable food advocate. “If multimillion-dollar companies like Rubbermaid and Vlasic can be brought to their knees by the retail behemoth, how should we expect small farmers to fare?” he asks.

Local food sign.Local is the new organic — and Walmart does both the corporate, industrial way.Photo: Walmart StoresWalmart’s promise to increase local sourcing is reminiscent of its pledge five years ago to expand its organic food offerings. “They held true to their corporate model and tried to do organics the same way,” said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute. For its store-brand organic milk, for example, Walmart turned to Aurora Organic Dairy, which runs several giant industrial milking operations in Texas and Colorado, each with as many as 10,000 cows. In 2007, the USDA sanctioned Aurora for multiple violations of organic standards. Earlier this year, the agency stepped in again, this time revoking the organic certification for Promiseland Livestock, which had been supplying supposedly organically raised cows to Aurora.

These days, Walmart’s interest in organic food seems to have ebbed. “Our observation is that they sell fewer organic products and produce now than four years ago,” said Kastel. Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association agrees. Today, he says, “the proportion of their sales that is organic is the lowest of any major supermarket chain.”

Leveraging food deserts

Walmart has renewed its push to get into big cities, after trying and failing a few years ago. This time the company has honed a fresh strategy that goes right to the soft underbelly of urban concerns. In July, Walmart officials, standing alongside First Lady Michelle Obama, pledged to open or expand as many as 300 stores “in or near” food deserts.

Walmart sees underserved neighborhoods as a way to edge its camel’s nose under the tent and then do what it’s done in the rest of the country: open dozens of stores situated to take market share from local grocers and unionized supermarkets. Stephen Colbert dubbed the strategy Walmart’s “Trojan cantaloupe.” For example, an analysis by Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s office estimates that if Walmart opens in Harlem, at least 30 supermarkets, green grocers, and bodegas selling fresh produce would close.

For neighborhoods that are truly underserved, it seems hard to argue with the notion that having a Walmart nearby is better than relying on 7-11 and McDonald’s for meals. But poor diet, limited access to fresh food, and diet-related health issues are a cluster of symptoms that all stem from a deeper problem that Walmart is likely to make worse: poverty. Poverty has a strong negative effect on diet quality, a 15-year study recently concluded, and access to a supermarket makes almost no difference.

Neighborhoods that gain Walmart stores end up with more poverty and food-stamp usage than communities where the retailer does not open, a study published in Social Science Quarterly found. This increase in poverty may owe to the fact that Walmart’s arrival leads to a net loss of jobs and lowers wages, according to research [PDF] by economists at the University of California-Irvine and Cornell.

Walmart has also been linked to rising obesity. “An additional supercenter per 100,000 residents increases … the obesity rate by 2.3 percentage points,” a recent study concluded. “These results imply that the proliferation of Walmart supercenters explains 10.5 percent of the rise in obesity since the late 1980s.”

The bottom line for poor families is that processed food is cheaper than fresh vegetables — and that’s especially true if you shop at Walmart. The retailer beats its competitors on prices for packaged foods, but not produce. An Iowa study found that Walmart charges less than competing grocery stores for cereals, canned vegetables, and meats, but has higher prices on most fresh vegetables and high-volume dairy foods, including milk.

Walmart produce.Local? I don’t think that word means what you think it means.Photo: Walmart StoresThe future of food?

We stand to lose a lot if Walmart keeps tightening its grip on the grocery sector. Signs of a revitalized food system have been springing up all over — farmers markets, urban gardeners, neighborhood grocers, consumer co-ops, CSAs — but their growth may well be cut short if Walmart has its way.

“People need to keep an eye on the values that are at the root of what is driving so much of this activity around the food system,” said Kathy Mulvey, policy director for the Community Food Security Coalition.

Walmart is pushing us toward a future where food production is increasingly industrialized, farmers and workers are squeezed, and the promise of fresh produce is used to conceal an economic model that leaves neighborhoods more impoverished. Are we going to let it happen, or are we going to demand better food and a better world?


Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, where she directs initiatives onindependent business and community banking. She is the author of Big-Box Swindle and also writes a popular monthly newsletter, the Hometown Advantage Bulletin. She lives in Portland, Maine, and has lately joined Twitter.

Seeds of injustice

Published on Deccan Chronicle (

There is an intense scramble for the earth’s resources and ownership of nature. Big oil, big pharma, big food, big seed companies are joining hands to appropriate biodiversity and biomass — the living carbon, thereby extending the age of fossil fuels and dead carbon. Corporations view the 75 per cent biomass used by nature and local communities as “wasted”. They would like to appropriate the living wealth of the planet for making biofuels, chemicals and plastics. This will dispossess the poor of the very sources of their lives and livelihoods. The instruments for this new dispossession are technological tools of genetic engineering, synthetic biology and intellectual property rights (IPRs). A patent is supposed to be granted to an invention. But patents and IPRs are being used to own seeds, life forms and traditional knowledge. Piracy of traditional knowledge is not an invention; it is theft — we call it biopiracy. Patents are at the heart of Monsanto’s seed monopoly.

After the WTO’s Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement was signed in 1994, a representative of the world’s biggest seed corporation said that Monsanto had been the “patient, diagnostician and physician” in drafting the agreement which forced countries to introduce patents on life and seeds. Monsanto, which began with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), is now patenting non-GM crops. On May 21, 2003, Monsanto was assigned a patent on the Indian variety of wheat, Nap Hal, by the European Patent Office (EPO), Munich, under the simple title “plants”. On January 27, 2004, Research Foundation for Science Technology and Ecology, along with Greenpeace and Bharat Krishak Samaj, filed a petition at EPO, challenging the patent rights given to Monsanto. The patent was revoked in October 2004. This was the third consecutive victory on the IPR front after neem and basmati, and it once again established that patents on biodiversity, indigenous knowledge and resources are based on biopiracy.

Monsanto has used nine local brinjal (eggplant) varieties to develop its Bt. brinjal. Since the Biological Diversity Act of India, 2002, requires approval for accessing indigenous biodiversity, the Karnataka Biodiversity Board complained to the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA). According to the minutes of the NBA’s meeting on June 20, 2011, “NBA may proceed legally against Mahyco/Monsanto, and all others concerned to take the issue to its logical conclusion.” Monsanto is also accessing native onion varieties to develop its proprietary hybrids. The company is going to pay `10 lakh to the Indian Institute of Horticulture Research for 25 gms each of Male Sterile (A line) and Maintener (B line) of MS 48 and MS 65 as a one-time licence fee. Is this a just price?

In May 2011, Monsanto got a patent on conventionally-bred melons from the EPO. Monsanto has used the natural resistance in Indian melons to certain plant viruses such as the “yellow stunting disorder virus”. Using conventional breeding, this resistance was introduced into other melons. While this is biopiracy of a trait evolved by Indian farmers, Monsanto has patented the plant, all parts of the plant (including the seed) and the melon fruit as its “invention”. There is an urgent need to ban all patents on life and living organisms, including biodiversity, genes and cell lines. The coalition “No Patents on Seeds” has started a campaign to exclude breeding material, plants and animals, and foods derived thereof from patentability. Industrial globalised agriculture is heavily implicated in climate change. It contributes to the three major greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide from the use of fossil fuels, nitrogen oxide from the use of chemical fertilisers and methane from factory farming. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global atmospheric concentration of N2O, largely as a result of the use of chemical fertilisers in agriculture, increased from about 270 parts per billion to 319 parts per billion in 2005. Industrial agriculture is also more vulnerable to climate change, which is intensifying droughts and floods. Monocultures lead to more frequent crop failure when rainfall does not come in time, or is too much or too little. Chemically fertilised soils have no capacity to withstand a drought.

Genetic engineering is embedded in the industrial model of agriculture based on fossil fuels. It is falsely being offered as a magic bullet for dealing with climate change. Monsanto claims that GMOs are a cure for both, food insecurity and climate change, and has been putting out the following advertisement across the world: “9 billion people to feed. A changing climate Now what? Producing more Conserving more Improving farmers lives That’s sustainable agriculture And that’s what Monsanto is all about.” All the claims this advertisement makes are false. Monsanto claims its GMO Bt. cotton gives 1,500 kg/acre, while the average is 300-400 kg/acre. The claim to increased yield is false because yield, like climate resilience, is a multi-genetic trait. Introducing toxins into a plant through herbicide resistance or Bt. toxin increases the “yield” of toxins, not of food or nutrition. Climate resilient traits are not “inventions” of corporations. They have been evolved by nature and farmers. Farmers in India have been breeding crops for millennia to come up with crops that are resistant to climate extremes. Using farmers’ varieties as “genetic material”, the biotechnology industry is playing genetic roulette — gambling on which gene complexes are responsible for which trait.

Breeding is being replaced by gambling, innovation is giving way to biopiracy, and science is being substituted by propaganda and resource-grab. Over the past 20 years, we at Navdanya, India’s biodiversity and organic farming movement, have realised that biodiverse, local, organic systems produce more food and higher farm incomes while reducing water use and risks of crop failure due to climate change. Turning the living wealth of the planet into the property of corporations through patents is a recipe for deepening the poverty and ecological crisis. Biodiversity is the basis of life; it is our living commons. We are a part of nature, not her masters and owners. IPRs on life forms, living resources and living processes are an ethical, ecological and economic perversion. We need to recognise the sovereignty of diverse knowledge systems, including traditional knowledge. And we need to reclaim our biological and intellectual commons for ecological sustainability and economic justice. Dr Vandana Shiva is the executive director of the Navdanya Trust

ANDHRA PRADESH: COKE VS FARMERS Bottled Krishna Guntur farmers fume at AP’s allotment of drinking water to Coke

It’s farmers vs Coca Cola again, this time in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh. Even as several villages in the area grapple with acute drinking water shortage and farmers seek better irrigation facilities, the government has allotted 2,150 cubic metre or 21.5 lakh litres of water from the river Krishna per day to M/s Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Pvt Ltd at its plant in Atmakuru village. The government order (GO Ms. No. 26), issued on March 26, 2010, has triggered protests by farmer bodies. The CPI, CPI(M) and the Telugu Desam Party say the state government is compromising the farmers’ right to water by giving it to a beverage company.

Coca Cola, which has been operating in Atmakuru for over a decade now, earlier relied on groundwater for its operations. It sought permission to use water from the Krishna Water Main Canal in December 2007. Permission now granted, it has left locals fuming. According to the GO, Coca Cola can use the 2,150 cu m a day for 10 years. The annual outflow of water will be 0.02 tmc (thousand million cubic feet). The firm will lay its own pipeline and water meter, and will be charged industrial rates (Rs 4,500 per million gallon). The Krishna Water Main canal is part of the Buckingham canal, which is specifically meant to meet irrigation and drinking water requirements in Prakasam and Guntur districts.

According to agricultural experts, 1 tmc of water can irrigate about 10,000 acres per annum. Therefore 0.02 tmc can irrigate 200 acres per annum. This is the first time a beverage company is being allowed to draw water from a canal specifically meant for irrigation and drinking. However, both principal secretary, irrigation, S.K. Joshi, and the Hindustan Coca Cola spokesperson term the quantity of water as negligible. Joshi says the allotment of water will not affect the upper and lower riparian rights along the canal. “Besides,” he adds, “the firm will not be allowed to draw water for three months during the closure of the canal.”

Farmers, however, are unwilling to buy the “negligible” explanation. “If, as they say, the quantity is so less, why is Coca Cola so eager to lay a pipeline at its own cost,” asks cpi’s Guntur district secretary, Muppala Nageswara Rao, who staged a protest outside the Coca Cola plant earlier this month along with farmers. “About 15 villages around the Coca Cola factory have been seeking potable water from the government under the protected drinking water scheme but to no avail. Places like Atmakuru, Revendrapadu, Pedavadlapudi, Chinnavadlapudi, Ippatam, Tadepalli, Duggirala and Tenali (rural) are struggling with water shortage. Giving all these people the short shrift, the government has issued this GO. Does the government want its rural poor to drink beverages sold by Coke?”

TDP MLAs from Guntur P. Pulla Rao and D. Narendra Kumar wonder why the government is being so generous to Coca Cola which “does business in selling water and beverages whose quality itself has been suspect for long”. Kumar says the GO has set a dangerous precedent that threatens the water security of farmers and others. “If Coca Cola wanted only a ‘small quantity’ of water, why couldn’t it ask the Mangalagiri municipality (which would have refused a higher volume)? Moreover, the company might even draw more than the allotted 0.02 tmc. If it draws 1 or 2 tmc, is there any authority to oversee this?” asks Kumar.

Pulla Rao says it’s astonishing that the government could favour a company that has faced legal suits in Kerala. “As an industry, it won’t even serve the people like, say, a power unit would. We demand that the GO be withdrawn immediately,” he says. TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu also spoke out against the move at a farmers’ protest rally on Prakasam barrage. “Is there surplus water in the Krishna delta?” he asked. “The state is supplying canal water to a commercial enterprise which sells it right back to the people in the form of mineral water and soft drinks at higher prices.”

Hanumantha Rao shows affected corn

The company’s use of groundwater till now, farmers in the area suspect, has led to a fall in water tables and affected soil fertility. J. Hanumantha Rao, a small farmer in Pedavadlapudi, says his crop of corn has been affected badly over the last three years. “My yield has fallen by 30 per cent. The plants, which are supposed to stand for 120 days or so, now attain fruition in 80 days’ time. The size and quality of the corn has been affected as a result,” he says. Bhavana Srinivasa Rao, secretary, Guntur District Rythu Sangam, says that soil salinity has increased in the last five years. “We strongly feel that the company is dumping untreated waste water into the ground and is overshooting its permissible limit of groundwater drawal,” says Rao. Other farmers in Pedavadlapudi and Atmakuru—A. Radhakrishna, J. Sambasiva Rao, B. Venkateswara Rao—complain of similar things. “A white sheen is seen on our crop of lady’s finger and even the soil. This is a sure pointer to pollution of groundwater,” says Venkateswara Rao.

Many people in this village say the drinking water is really bad. “We all buy water for cooking and drinking from a drinking water project run by Naandi Foundation,” says Srinivasa Rao. What the villagers don’t know, however, is that Coca Cola runs this community water initiative along with Naandi in two villages of Guntur district.

There have been murmurs even within the Congress against the canal water being supplied to Coca Cola. Deputy speaker Nadendla Manohar has said it was incorrect to allow Coca Cola to draw Krishna water from the canal and has spoken out against industry minister Kanna Lakshminarayana’s decision.

Meanwhile, Deepak Jolly, vice president (public affairs and communications), Coca Cola, protests against the “misinformation” campaign by some political parties. “It has been Coca Cola’s policy to combine usage of ground and surface water. Coca Cola is a respected company which operates as per the laws of the land. We do a lot of CSR in AP. Coca Cola is one of the largest buyers of mangoes from farmers for Maaza,” says Jolly. What would he rather have? If they can’t have water, let them have Coke, aye?