From the desk of Gene Merriam


Gene Merriam

Over the past few weeks, I have been reading some news articles that got me thinking about clean water, agriculture and the runoff from farms that too often pollutes lakes and rivers.

One evolving news story was about steps grocery chains are taking to demonstrate the sustainability of the seafood they sell. Whole Foods Market has quit selling Atlantic cod, skate, sturgeon and a number of other species because of overfishing or fishing techniques that endanger the species or the oceans.

Target, Walmart and other retailers have set similar sustainability standards for seafood.

The second string of articles was about actions by restaurants and food wholesalers and retailers – companies like Burger King, McDonald’s, Hormel and Cargill – to set standards that their suppliers must meet for humane treatment for pigs and chickens.

What do these articles have to do with clean water?

I mention them because they demonstrate the willingness of big corporations to change the way they do business.

The companies responded to different expectations and pressuresfrom their customers and may have had different motivations. But I believe they all were convinced that setting these standards and publicizing their adherence to them would give them a competitive advantage over those firms that do not change.

And I firmly believe the market clout wielded by Whole Foods, Walmart, Target, Hormel, Cargill and these other giant firms will bring big changes in other businesses and in the way fishermen fish and the way farmers raise their livestock.

We know that agricultural runoff is a major source of water pollution. Fertilizers – nitrogen and phosphorus – feed algae in lakes and rivers and are the leading cause of the oxygen-starved dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Nitrates endanger our groundwater. Soil erosion clogs streams with sediment.

The way we produce our food is damaging our waters.

As consumers, we need to educate food wholesalers and retailers about the value we put on clean water. We need to make clear to the firms that sell us food that they can benefit by setting sustainable production standards for the agricultural products they sell.

Will it be difficult to get those sustainability standards set and then get firms to adhere to them? Sure.

But Whole Foods, Walmart and Target took stands on the importance of protecting fish and the oceans. Burger King, McDonald’s, Hormel and Cargill are promising better treatment of livestock. 

If we let companies know that we want – and insist on – sustainability in the foods we buy and protection for the waters afflicted by runoff, the companies will provide it.