Retail giant Walmart announced plans this month to expand their “sustainable agriculture” goals, including sourcing more of the food they sell from small- and medium-sized farms, and doubling the amount of local produce grown and sold to customers within the same state. While critics contend that the corporation is destructive to local economies, Walmart’s efforts to redefine the food supply chain may provide positive outcomes to both local farmers and consumers.
This is not Walmart’s first effort into sustainable agriculture. In 2008, the company first announced efforts to focus on more local foods, expanding partnerships with farmers on a regional and state-by-state basis, and decreasing the miles traveled – and thus also transit time—from farm to store. As part of the program, for example, Walmart, described how peaches were sourced from 18 different states, rather than just a handful of well-known areas. The Locally Grown at Walmart factsheet explains, “By sourcing from so many different states and selling the product locally, Walmart saved 672,000 food miles and 112,000 gallons of diesel fuel. The total freight and gasoline savings combined equal more than $1.4 million.”
As admirable as these initiatives are, Walmart is not doing these things purely out of a sense of corporate responsibility. These initiatives are undoubtedly in response to consumer demand. The company’s 2008 initiative included increased signage to inform consumers of produce that came from farms within their state. This speaks to the influence of public pressure in the private sector. And since Walmart is not only the world’s largest retailer but also the world’s largest grocer, the influence of a shift in their food sourcing priorities has the potential to make a big impact.
Some elements of Walmart’s plans, while still influential, are not particularly ambitious. For example, doubling Walmart’s locally sourced produce will still bring the total to only nine percent. In Canada, where their grocery infrastructure is less well-developed, Walmart has set a more aggressive target of thirty percent.
Other elements of the sustainable agriculture goals could, if successful, change the complexion of American agriculture. For instance, Walmart intends to ask suppliers questions about water, energy, fertilizer, and pesticide use, and to work towards a “Sustainability Index” to synthesize and communicate the management practices that went into the produce.
In addition, Walmart plans to use their “Heritage Agriculture” program to encourage local farmers to explore more diverse crop selections, including crops once grown in the area but currently marginalized or outsourced to other regions or countries. The more types of fresh produce available locally, the better the options for the consumer. Also, regions with diverse agricultural production are inherently more resilient to stresses such as pests and extreme weather, and diverse systems tend to contribute lower loadings of agricultural chemicals to the environment.
If Walmart is successful with these initiatives, they will have a positive impact on agricultural production systems while expanding options for consumers, whether or not they are regular Walmart customers. Notably, through using their extensive supply-chain influence and expertise, they will also have achieved these benefits without the overhead of costly government regulation.