Fertile Musings

March 16, 2010

Ever so frequently I wake up on Sunday morning with the urge to blog on a topic that has some nominal connection to the “food ethics” theme of the Thornapple blog. Then there are Sunday mornings like this one, when I’m sitting there with my coffee and thinking that I’m supposed to post a blog today. The mind drifts toward a bit of chaff that’s stuck in my teeth from the oatmeal I’ve just eaten. I’m not saying that I couldn’t make something interesting out of that thought. Everyone loves a challenge now and then. But both of my regular readers will probably be relieved to hear that just as I was in the earliest stages of mulling that over—(Gee, a blog entitled “The Chaff”: what would that look like?)—an article in the USA Today section of The Lansing State Journal caught my attention.

It seems that Wal-Mart has latched onto a plan to reduce the overuse of fertilizer in the United States. Yes, overuse of fertilizer is a longstanding problem in agricultural ethics. When fertilizers get into lakes and streams they cause all manner of predicament and difficulty. There’s straight off toxicity to start with (bad if you are a fish) and extra nutrients can cause algae blooms. There’s also hypoxia. Now isn’t it exciting when you can encounter a word like “hypoxia” in an otherwise inane setting? I thought so, but if you really wanted to know what hypoxia was, you wouldn’t read philosophical blog posts. Even Wikipedia is going to be more informative.

This overuse of fertilizer has always been kind of a puzzlement to the agricultural economists. Farmers have to pay for that stuff, after all, and why would they apply so much that it washes downstream (where it just becomes a pollutant)? Now I’m not here to resolve the riddles that beset economists, so rest assured that I’m not even going to venture a tangential explanation. I’ll just get right back on track by saying that farmers do allow fertilizer to run off of their cropland. Maybe they are just overly concerned about underuse of fertilizer, but whatever. There is fertilizer in our lakes and streams (not to mention the Gulf of Mexico) that really doesn’t belong there, and now Wal-Mart is coming to the rescue to do something about it. Wal-Mart is going to apply it’s economic power over suppliers to require that they (the suppliers, that is) prove to them (Wal-Mart) that the corn chips and soy lecithin in their processed industrial food products were not produced by Midwestern farmers who were using too much fertilizer.

Wal-Mart’s action is itself something of a puzzlement to the agricultural economists of yore. I mean, really, does Wal-Mart genuinely care? [Which is, in the economists’ world, another way of saying, “Does Wal-Mart stand to make a buck off of this?”] Again I demur. Who knows? But I kind of doubt that Wal-Mart has a compelling pecuniary interest in what farmers are doing with respect to fertilizer use. Au contraire, Chucko, it’s yet another example of Wal-Mart’s ambition to become the Master hall monitor, overseer and moral umpire of the late-capitalist era. If I were a libertarian at heart, I would be much more concerned about this than Obamacare. But I’m not a libertarian at heart. (Nobody’s perfect.) So I’ll just chalk this up as an instance of “supply-chain ethics”.

Of course, the original blog on supply chain ethics was one of the all-time snoozers in the Thornapple blog. Nobody, and by nobody I mean neither one of my regular readers cared much about that one. Even the robots who persistently send comments relating to women’s shoes and bridal wear or Russian shopping malls were put to sleep by it. Perhaps I should just put this tirade to rest before I even get close to busting my weekly word-limit. But if perchance you do have a libertarian bone somewhere in your body that’s being aggravated by this disturbing news about Wal-Mart stepping up to do the work that not even the US Environmental Protection Agency (that’s Eee Pee Aye for the congenitally acronymic among us) has not the gumption (or funding) to attempt, well in that case it’s not my responsibility to separate the wheat from the chaff on a chilly March Sunday. You will just have to go all the way back to August 8, 2010 and read it again. Slowly, but with feeling.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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One thought on “Fertile Musings

  1. This can’t be true, since no one on Wal-Mart’s payroll can afford to eat, much less afford to fertilize their corn.

    Even if it were true, it wouldn’t work. Wal-Mart apparently thinks that if I feel happy about their corn chips, I’ll eat more of them. But in fact people consume more corn chips — along with artisan salsa and a couple-six free range, organic, gluten free, fair trade, humanely brewed beers — when they’re unhappy (about, say, the shortcomings of the EPA).

    And even if it did work, it probably wouldn’t work that well. As a model of how well Wal-Mart’s programs work, I looked into their “Made in USA” campaign. Seems that Wal-Mart does indeed promote US made products: 203 of them, precisely. What percentage of Wal-Mart’s overall product offerings that is, I cannot say; I can’t count that low.

    It is nice, though, that Wal-Mart is taking the pressure off me to think about what I buy. If I can pay someone else to do the thinking for me, then that’s one less thing I have to worry about.

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