Walmart’s food czar

Jack SinclairNational Geographic is running a months-long project about the future of food in the magazine, online and at live events, including one last Friday here in your nation’s capital. It’s an impressive journalistic undertaking, one very much worth following. I learned last week that a couple of top editors at Nat Geo are farm boys with ag degrees. Who knew? In any event, last week’s confab featured a series of lively and civil conversations about the global food system, and how to fix it.

One of a handful of speakers from business was Jack Sinclair, who oversees the grocery business for Walmart. Walmart, of course, sells more food than any other company in America, and the Bentonville giant is willing to throw its weight around, for better or worse.

Mostly for the better, in my view. Just in 2014, Walmart has supported (with its dollars) better working conditions for Florida farmworkers and a major rollout of organic foods under the hitherto defunct Wild Oats brand. Meantime, it is pushing its big suppliers to dig into their supply chains to make farming practices more efficient.

I sat down with Jack Sinclair before the conference last week, and wrote about him in a story posted today at The Guardian. Here’s how it begins:

One of the most powerful people in the US food industry is a 52-year-old native of Scotland who got his start in the business stacking groceries on supermarket shelves. Today, as an executive vice-president in charge of all the grocery operations at Walmart, Jack Sinclair is still stacking shelves – albeit on a grander scale.

Sinclair, who has been with Walmart since 2007, doesn’t just help to decide which products will make their way onto the shelves of America’s biggest retailer: he also exercises influence over how and where they are grown. In fact, joining Sinclair at a panel discussion at the National Geographic Society last week, former US agriculture secretary Dan Glickman said: “If you ask me what is the most important force in the agriculture today, I’d point to Walmart.”

It’s a startling claim, but there’s little doubt that Walmart’s impact on food and agriculture is vast. More than half of its annual revenues, which topped $476bn last year, come from groceries, and its market share is growing. Increasingly, the retailers has shown a willingness to use its buying power to influence the way that food is grown.

Last week, for example, Walmart invited the CEOs of Campbell Soup, General Mills, Kellogg and PepsiCo, among others, to its Bentonville headquarters for a sustainability summit. Several of these top food execs promised to persuade farmers in their supply chains to use less fertilizer and water to grow crops, and to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

I liked Jack Sinclair, although after seven years at the company he has been thoroughly indoctrinated into the “everyday low prices” mantra of Walmart. He must have told me a half dozen times that Walmart’s food initiatives will lower costs and drive out inefficiencies, and will therefore make the food system more sustainable. That’s almost surely true — using less fertilizer on farms saves money and protects waterways from being polluted by runoff — but it will take more than a narrow focus on efficiency to produce affordable, healthy, sustainable food.

For example, those of us in the rich world will need to shift our diets away from meat and especially beef with its heavy carbon and water footprint. A healthy food system means people will drink less soda and eat fewer foods that are heavily processed and high in sugar, salt and fat. Those changes are part of a “sustainable food” movement. Will Walmart be supportive? That’s an open question.

You can read the rest of my store here.