The Case of the Guatemala Melon

I have a very trusted friend whose opinion I tend to respect–I’ll just call him “Mr. X”–who doesn’t quite agree with the gist of my post yesterday. To wit, my assertion that we need to shift demand in order for the market system to impact the environment in a positive direction. He holds that this is the exact problem with most “visions” for sustainability, that they rely too much on altruism, and too much on people having to sacrifice in some way in order to get the system to shift. My point would be that this would be the ONLY way to shift the system. The market responds to demand, and if all people demand is the very cheapest thing at the most convenience, then that’s what they get. A clear example comes to mind, that of the large, non-organic honeydew melon I bought at Walmart in another state last summer—from Guatemala, for the grand total of $1.89. I couldn’t believe it. To plant, grow, harvest, and ship an eight-pound melon for thousands and thousands of miles, and still have it sell for $1.89. On one hand, this is a testament to efficiency; Walmart is nothing if not efficient, and this sort of efficiency creates our wealth. (A few years ago the entire growth in U.S. productivity for a whole year could be accounted for by Walmart alone). On the other hand—when we keep buying the $1.89 melons, we keep getting the $1.89 melons, replete with pesticide usage, unfair labor practices, huge inputs of fossil fuel, etc. Retailers don’t actually care what they sell us; they’re just trying to make a profit. In the words of the CAFO operator Bob Bledsoe in the film King Corn, “If the American people wanted grass-fed beef, we’d raise them grass-fed beef”. But that’s not what Americans demand—they demand cheap foods and products. And they get them.

More about Walmart tomorrow.