My son loves Walmart.  When asked why, the answer is a no-brainer. “Because it has a lot of stuff.”  What kind of stuff? “Video games and food and cell phones — a lot of video games.”  What kind of food? “Cereal, snacks, and broccoli and fruit.”

Broccoli and fruit? What’s up with that?

Unknown to nine-year-old Nate, quite a bit.  This past January, Walmart announced a program to drop prices on fruits and vegetables and to make its branded packaged foods lower in unhealthy salts (by 25 percent by 2015), and fats and sugars (by 10 percent).  It also committed to building more stores in “food deserts” (especially urban inner cities).  The announcement, boosted by Michelle Obama’s support, generated a wave of media coverage.

Less noted, however, was Walmart’s announcement last October of a program focused on sustainable agriculture.  In emerging markets, it pledges to sell $1 billion of food grown by 1 million small and medium farmers (those with fewer than 20 hectares, about 50 acres). In the U.S., it plans to double the percentage of locally grown food it sells to 9 percent.  It also commits to formulating an agricultural sustainability index that will help guide food choices by consumers.

As news of these initiatives emerged, I was surprised to find this behemoth of a company (valued at $405 billion with 2 million employees) among those at the forefront in connecting some pretty important dots:  agricultural development in low-income countries, environmental sustainability, and diet and agriculture in richer countries.

In doing so, Walmart’s initiatives have the potential to impact several global problems: easing the poverty of millions of small farmers; improving the environmental sustainability of farming; boosting the health and nutritional value of the food we eat; and potentially limiting the ever-rising price of food in some emerging economies.

In poorer countries, local sourcing can provide small- and medium-scale farmers with an assured market, enabling them to invest to make their farms more productive and sustainable.  Their increased productivity and incomes would be a strong force in the fight against hunger and malnutrition.  In developed countries, local sourcing from smaller farms can help grow a more economically diverse (and potentially more sustainable) agricultural system, and bring fresh healthy produce to tables rarely graced by fresh greens.

When all the dots are connected, we just might see the rates of stunting in children fall in poor countries (if ever so slightly), along with the weights of the overindulged in the rich. The cascade of changes in sourcing, manufacturing, and distributing of food point in the direction of a more sustainable Earth and a longer-lived Humanity.  It’s a direction worth pursuing, however distant the ultimate goal.

CNBC Features Walmart’s Locally Grown Produce

Top image caption:
Leslie Dach, Walmart executive vice president of corporate affairs explains Walmart’s sustainable agriculture commitment during the company’s October Milestone Meeting.

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