cheap Salmon and Wal-Mart
Salon.com has a very interesting book excerpt today, from Charles Fishman's book entitled The Wal-Mart Effect. Living in NYC, where there are no Wal-Marts, $4.84/pound Atlantic salmon isn't something I have to deal with on a regular basis, but Fishman's discussion of how they can sell it for so cheap, and where it comes from (Chilean fish farms), is very much worth thinking about. I've long been interested in the conflict between two competing interests: getting environmentally sustainable, worker-friendly food, and getting food of that quality to the poor, who can't very well shop at Whole Foods. Here are some select quotes from the article/book:
Salmon for $4.84 a pound is a grocery-store showstopper. If prices contain information, if prices are not just a way of judging whether something is expensive or affordable but contain all kinds of other signals about supply, demand, prestige, and even the conditions under which products are made... then salmon for $4.84 a pound is a new, unintended Wal-Mart effect. It is a price so low that it inspires not happiness but wariness. If you were so inclined, you couldn't mail a pound of salmon back to Chile for $4.84. It's a price so low, it doesn't seem to make sense if you think about it for even a moment. [I]t's a deal too good to be true, if not for us as the customers, then for someone, somewhere. What exactly did Wal-Mart have to do to get salmon so cheaply?About why Chile is now raising Atlantic salmon:
Salmon farming in Chile was spurred by a business incubator called Fundación Chile, according to Rodrigo Pizarro. "A lot of young businessmen, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, men who were the sons of families with historical business ties, found out about salmon and went to the south to find out what was happening," says Pizarro. "They went to a sort of frontier area -- and they stayed in those places and built this industry. It took five or ten years." ... "They had no history of aquaculture in Chile," [a researcher] says. "None at all. But there is a real entrepreneurial spirit in Chile. And they had cheap labor, and a cheap environment." Salmon farming flourished... Now, says Anderson, you can get salmon from farms in Chile up to the United States faster than you can get it down from Alaska. "In Chile," he says, "they harvest the fish early, early in the morning, when it's still dark. They get it to the processing plants near the farms right in the morning. Then it's on a truck or a plane to Santiago, and then on a plane to Miami. There's fish killed in southern Chile that is in Miami or New York in under forty-eight hours."About why the fish is so cheap to buy:
Part of the reason Wal-Mart can sell a salmon fillet for $4.84 is that, as Leape puts it, "they don't internalize all the costs." Pollution ultimately costs money -- to clean up, to prevent, to recover from. But right now those costs aren't in the price of a pound of Chilean salmon. Salmon-processing facilities that are run with as much respect for the people as the hygiene of the fish also cost money -- for reasonable wages, for proper equipment, for enough workers to permit breaks and days off. Right now those costs aren't in the price of a pound of Chilean salmon either.About Wal-Mart's role in changing standards for food production:
The environmental groups in conversations with Wal-Mart want to bring along the big company toward a view that it can, that it must, use its power to solve some of the environmental and labor problems that the industries it relies on create. They think Wal-Mart could ultimately do for corporate environmental stewardship what it has done for corporate productivity and efficiency. Wal-Mart wants to be seen as taking criticism seriously, and it wants to be seen as a responsible citizen. But the environmental groups don't want to be duped, or co-opted, by a Wal-Mart campaign that turns out to be more public relations than substance... Wal-Mart must surely be worried that once you open the door to considerations other than what's required by law, to considerations other than what's required to improve efficiency and decrease cost -- well, where will the demands end? What won't people ask of Wal-Mart?