(UPDATED COVERAGE, Oct. 9) Wal-Mart says it wants to help create a more sustainable food system., but how that will impact its fresh fruit and vegetable suppliers is not known yet.
The Bentonville, Ark..-based company announced at its corporate meeting on sustainability that it will reach the goal through what it called "four key pillars," according to an Oct. 6 news release.
Wal-Mart will work with suppliers to track and report the progress of creating a sustainable food system, according to the release.
Wal-Mart aims to decrease the environmental impact of agricultural practices, according to the release. Wal-Mart will launch what it calls the "Climate Smart Agriculture Platform," which seeks better visibility over the next 10 years to agricultural yields, greenhouse gas emissions and water usage, while driving adoption of best practices in sustainable agriculture, according to the release.
How soon Wal-Mart will ask hard data from growers isn"t clear, and the company didn"t release any details of its "Climate Smart Agriculture Platform."
Wal-Mart has been championing sustainability for seven or eight years, said Tim York, chief executive officer of Markon Cooperative, Salinas, Calif., The world"s biggest retailer is involved with the Sustainability Consortium and is still involved with the work of the Stewardship Index for Speciality Crops, he said.
"The challenge for Wal-Mart, as it is for all of us, is what does that program look like," he said. "Is a buyer best equipped to judge whether a grower is using, for example, too much water?"
For example, York said there are hundreds of types of subsoils in the Salinas Valley alone and that makes it hard to say what is appropriate input use in one area versus another region, he said. Having growers compete against each other in sustainability measures is not a good approach, he said.
Consumer awareness of input use may be helpful in helping them understand their own roles in reducing food waste, he said. For example, a recent UC Davis study estimated the amount of water necessary to grow romaine lettuce topped 16 gallons per head.
"If I waste one head of romaine(as a consumer), that"s the impact that has - 16 gallons of water," he said. "But is a consumer going to prefer one grower because he uses 13 gallons over another grower who uses 16 gallons, or are we still buying with our eyes and it is about price?" While niche consumers may care to have that much detail, York said price will hold sway over consumer decisions for the immediate future.
Another industry source, speaking on background, said the Wal-Mart release lacked details on what type of platform it will use to collect data from growers. Wal-Mart floated a sustainability proposal about two years ago that met some resistance in the trade, he said. At the retail level, the source said there seems to be an increasing realization that growers are doing all they can do to be good stewards and the sustainability measuring platforms considered may add costs to the system.
While there may have been a time that retailers believed they might compete on the issue of who is more sustainable, the source said idea may have waned and retailers have approached the issue more deliberately.
In its announcement, Wal-Mart said the pillars of the sustainable food system are:
- improving the affordability of food for both customers and the environment
- increasing access to food
- making healthier eating easier and
- improving the safety and transparency of the food chain.
"The future of food is absolutely critical for both our society and for our business, which means we have a huge opportunity to make a difference here," Doug McMillon, president and CEO of Wal-Mart Stores, said in the release. "We"ve learned on our sustainability journey that we"re most successful when our initiatives create social and environmental value and business value at the same time.