The New York Times is worried about Wal-Mart’s plan to sell organic food. One would think that fans of organic would be happy about this development. It means that organic products will be available more cheaply at Wal-Mart, which is planning to sell organic products for just 10% more than conventionally grown food, and it’s almost certain to lower organic food prices elsewhere. First, competition with Wal-Mart will lower prices. In addition, Wal-Mart’s entry into the organic sector will expand organic production, thereby permitting producers to achieve greater economies of scale.
The Times, though, worries that Wal-Mart’s entry into the organic food market will pollute the label “organic.” It’s concerned that Wal-Mart will affix the organic label to foods that, while produced using organic methodologies, are grown on large, non-local farms. In other words, it’s not enough that the food be produced without chemical fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides, etc. Those factors — the ones that might have some environmental and/or health effect — are only part of what organic means. The Times explains: “People who think seriously about food have come to realize that ‘local’ is at least as important a word as ‘organic.'”
So let me get this straight. The Times wants to insist on an organic standard that (1) has nothing to do with the environmental effects of producing the food or the health effects of eating it and (2) cannot be met cheaply (i.e., by obtaining economies of scale). Wonder why that is. One possibility is that the Times wants to protect the small farmer and sees the organic label as a means of doing so (although one assumes that people concerned about small, local farmers could just buy foods labeled “locally produced.”) A more plausible theory is that the Times wants to preserve the organic label as a status symbol. After all, if you can reserve the organic label for food products that can’t be cheaply produced, then you can ensure that those products are reserved for “people who think seriously about food” — i.e., not the commoners who shop at Wal-Mart.