Let’s Ask Marion: What Can Wal-Mart Do To Promote Sustainability?

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Food Politics and What to Eat:)

Kat: My question for you this week comes courtesy of Rand Waddoups, Wal-Mart's Senior Sustainability Director (or something like that). Apparently, he's been reading Michael Pollan, and it's got him thinking about what his employer--who happens to be the number one food retailer in the U.S.--could do to fix our broken food chain.

Waddoups posted an entry on Wal-Mart's corporate blog on Tuesday entitled "Sustainable Industrialized Food?" in which he quotes Pollan's observation that we're "eating a lot of edible food-like substances, which is to say highly processed things that might be called yogurt, might be called cereals, whatever, but in fact are very intricate products of food science that are really imitations of foods."

He then asks:

I know food, in general, is a very sensitive topic for a lot of people, but what do you think should and can be done in the short term to make the industrialized food chain better? What products should Wal-Mart have that they don't to meet your desires for a more sustainable food assortment? If you could choose one item you would want removed from stores, what would it be?

Dr. Nestle: Remove one item? I'd say cigarettes--which is what Wegmans has already done--but I think it's the wrong question. Wal-Mart needs to ask a different question: What could Wal-Mart do to promote a more sustainable food system?

Here, the answer is lots. Retailers control the food chain. If retailers say "we insist that our suppliers demonstrate that their foods are grown sustainably," guess what: they will be. So how about Wal-Mart sets up some standards for the production of foods it sells? That ought to have an immediate impact.