In what some say could be a game-changing initiative, Walmart Stores last week announced that it will focus on smaller, globally sustainable agriculture to revitalize rural communities and reduce the impact farming has on the environment.

According to the press release the company issued on Thursday, the retail giant plans to “help small and medium sized farmers expand their businesses, get more income for their products, and reduce the environmental impact of farming, while strengthening local economies and providing customers around the world with long-term access to affordable, high-quality, fresh food.”

The announcement came to many as a dramatic shift from Walmart’s previous business policies; however, sustainability goals and outreach to local farmers are not entirely new objectives for the company. 

At the beginning of the decade, Walmart became an industry-wide leader in environmental sustainability.  In 2005, the company launched its “Sustainability 360” campaign, setting broad goals that included supplying its stores with 100 percent renewable energy sources, encouraging its suppliers to reduce waste, and stocking its shelves with items produced using sustainable methods. 

Although Mike Duke, president and CEO of Walmart, remarked in a 2009 Global Sustainability Report that there was still a lot of work to be done to attain its 2005 goals, the report demonstrated that the company had implemented practices to improve its sustainability record both nationally and globally. 

For instance, the report cited investments in wind and hydroelectric power to supply some of its stores, placement of “green” products in stores ranging from energy-efficient appliances to environmentally preferable household cleaning products, and the company’s commitment to encouraging customers to use reusable shopping bags to eliminate the waste from plastic shopping bags. 

In addition to its environmental programs, Walmart has previously demonstrated a desire to revitalize small farming communities by buying a percentage of the store’s food inventory from local growers.  Earlier this year, Food Safety News reported on Walmart’s efforts to support the local food movement through its Heritage Agriculture program. 

Walmart’s Ron McCormick, senior director for Strategic Food Sourcing, told Food Safety News that the economic decline of many rural farming regions was one reason that prompted Walmart’s interest in establishing a connection with local food producers. 

McCormick explained that many areas throughout the US that were once supported by thriving agricultural economies are now often home to a Walmart Food distribution center.  “It made sense to us, that if we could revitalize those economies, it would let us buy fresher product for our customers and save food miles.   At the same time, we would be supporting many rural communities that support our stores,” he said.

With its announcement Thursday, Walmart has taken additional steps toward its commitment to sustainability by setting policies that will not only reduce harm to the environment, but may pave the way for small and medium sized farms to prosper.

Walmart divides its new Global Sustainable Agriculture strategy into three broad areas, which each contain specific short-term supporting goals to help the company track and report progress.

The first area focuses on supporting farmers and their communities. Walmart hopes that by 2015 it will have helped many small and mid-sized farmers gain access to markets that were not available to them previously. 

To accomplish this goal, the company wants to sell $1 billion in food sourced from 1 million small and medium farmers in emerging markets, provide training and infrastructure to 1 million farmers and farm workers in such as crop selection and sustainable farming practices, and increase the income of the small and medium farmers it sources from by 10 to 15 percent.  In addition, Walmart says it sill double its sale of locally sourced produce to 9 percent through its Heritage Agriculture program.

The company’s second key area of focus is to produce more food with fewer resources and less waste. In tackling this, Walmart will, for the first time, ask its suppliers about the amount of water, energy, fertilizer and pesticide used per unit of food produced.  Moreover, the company intends to invest more than $1 billion over the next five years in its global fresh food supply chain and to significantly reduce food waste.

Perhaps most significant, however, will be the company’s pledge to increase the use and effectiveness of its Sustainability Index

The index was created as a tool to aid consumers in their food choices. Beginning with a survey of global suppliers within Walmart’s supply chain that measures each companies’ sustainability record, the company says the data collected will ultimately be used to provide greater transparency to customers through a sustainability rating system.  Accordingly, customers should be able to examine how a product was grown and shipped before making their purchase.   

According to Marty Matlock, a professor of ecological engineering at the University of Arkansas, “The index represents a real number that will mean improvement on the ground: improving ecosystem health, soil health and food quality.”

Finally, the third prong of Wal,art’s global initiative involves sustainably sourced key agricultural products.  In particular, Walmart has indicated that it will be focusing its energies on resolving what are now two major contributors to global deforestation–palm oil and beef production.

By the end of 2015, all Walmart private brand products globally that use palm oil will have to use sustainably sourced palm oil.  The company predicts that sourcing sustainable palm oil for private brand products in the United Kingdom and the US alone will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 million metric tons by the end of 2015.

With regards to beef production, Walmart expressed its intention to require by 2015 the already existing practice of Wamart Brazil of only sourcing beef that does not contribute to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. 

The company has also received firm commitments from stores in Japan, India, China, and Canada, pledging to meet country-specific sustainability goals. 

Although somewhat lofty, the goals resonated with environmental and sustainable farming advocates in large part because of Walmart’s size and widespread reach. 

As the largest grocer in the world, Walmart serves customers and members more than 200 million times per week at more than 8,400 retail units under 55 different banners in 15 countries.  With annual sales reaching $405 billion and two million employees, any change in Walmart policies has major implications for the worldwide environment and the global food system. 

“No other retailer has the ability to make more of a difference than Walmart,” said Mike Duke on Thursday.  He continued, “Through sustainable agriculture, Walmart is uniquely positioned to make a positive difference
in food production–for farmers, communities and customers.”

Some question Walmart’s motives and wonder whether this initiative is altruistic or simply better for the company’s bottom-line, or perhaps both. 

Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University commented, “I, of course, am a skeptic.  Of course Walmart wants to get into the business of sustainably and locally grown food.  Walmart is the largest grocery chain in the world, the 800-pound gorilla in the industry.  It can demand whatever it wants from its suppliers, and at the lowest possible cost.”

Nestle asked rhetorically whether Walmart’s initiatives will help farmers.  She said she will “want to wait and see how it all plays out before making a final judgment.”