Flat, sprawling farm fields fill the screen. A fisherman tosses a net into pristine waters. Then, Rob Walton, eldest son of Walmart founder Sam Walton, enters the frame in an outdoorsy vest over a dress shirt, tree branches blurred behind him. As he begins to talk, family photos appear one by one. First, just a few kids with their parents on a couch, then those kids with their kids outside on lawn chairs. There’s Sam Walton and his wife Helen in front of a waterfall, then paddling a canoe with a smiling little boy in the bow.
“That environmental focus that our generation has latched onto,” says their grandson Tom Walton, picking up the narration from his uncle in the marketing video posted by the Walton Family Foundation in 2018, “Sam and Helen taught us at an early age.”
After years of philanthropic support for fisheries, water, and education, members of his generation (along with some of their elders) are not only accelerating that environmental focus, they’re applying it to food and agriculture in new ways.
As the Waltons turn their attention to how the country feeds itself, the implications are vast: Sam left his heirs more than an appreciation for nature. He also passed on a significant stake in Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, with $611.3 billion in annual revenues. Their ownership of about 50 percent of shares is one piece of a $225 billion fortune that makes the Waltons the richest family in the world. While their investments and philanthropy tend to float under the radar compared to those of other billionaires, already it’s nearly impossible to turn a corner in the realm of sustainable food and agriculture without running into Walton money.
Consider Lukas Walton, Tom’s cousin, who is using a $2 billion venture capital fund to invest in organic chicken, grass-fed dairy, plant-based supply chains, and ag-tech, while supporting food access and fisheries innovations with his philanthropy. His mom, Christy Walton—widow to Sam’s son John—has a net worth of about $11 billion, which she has used to fund restaurants, large ocean aquaculture projects, and a 40,000-acre ranch that offers a “regenerative experience” to tourists and has acted as a site for research on land and livestock management.
She’s also put millions of philanthropic dollars into a demonstration farm in Oregon. And in addition to funding agricultural education in Colorado, Ben Walton—also a cousin to Lukas and Tom—was one of several investors who helped plant-based foods company NotCo raise $235 million in 2021.
While their investments and philanthropy tend to float under the radar compared to those of other billionaires, already it’s nearly impossible to turn a corner in the realm of sustainable food and agriculture without running into Walton money.
Then there’s the Walmart Foundation, which last year gave the Nature Conservancy $1.5 million (among other grants) to help farmers change their practices and launch a “regenerative foodscape” and is involved in a $80 million USDA-supported project on climate-smart rice production. Most significantly, according to our review of Walton Family Foundation tax records, the family’s marquee philanthropy made more than $665 million in grants in 2021, an estimated 10 percent of which touched the food system in some way.
Last year, the foundation supported the production of a report on greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, which played a significant role in the national conversation around regenerative agriculture. Other recent grantees have included the Center for Rural Affairs, the National Young Farmers Coalition, the Soil Health Institute, and the Regenerative Agriculture Foundation.
These examples represent a drop in a vast sea of varied Walton family investment and philanthropy that impact food and agriculture. But what many of the projects share is a recognition that commodity production that prioritizes yields and profits above all else has harmed the country’s landscape and people. As the Walton Family Foundation’s executive director recently wrote in a blog post, “The relentless demand for increased production and higher crop yields has come with a high cost—degraded soil health and lower water quality.”
Over the past 30 years, one reason that model has come to dominate the food system is the unprecedented demands of a company like no other: Walmart.
In that time frame, the company has continuously expanded its grocery business and maximized profits by focusing on beating competitors on price. While far from alone among a field of retailers racing to consolidate and maximize efficiencies to drive profits, none have come close to matching Walmart’s scale and skill at squeezing suppliers and foisting the costs of production onto the small-town landscapes and people that its food comes from. In the words of one policy expert, today’s Walmart is now a vast monopsony, dominating multiple markets as the largest buyer.
But alas, the country’s relationship with food is changing—and Walmart wants in.
Over the last decade or so, the company has refined its corporate image, becoming a major seller of sustainable seafood and organic produce, launching initiatives to support local foods from small farms, and making a string of promises around sustainability within its supply chains. In 2020, in its boldest commitment to date, Walmart declared it would become a “regenerative company,” promising, among other things, that it would “protect, manage, and restore 50 million acres of land by 2030.”
In the words of one policy expert, today’s Walmart is now a vast monopsony, dominating multiple markets as the largest buyer.
It won’t be easy. Alan Lewis, a food and agriculture policy expert with Natural Grocers, puts it this way: If Walmart executives are serious about being a regenerative company, “they’re saying we are going to downsize our agricultural supply chains, integrate all of those external costs into our margins, and price things accordingly. If Walmart does that, it goes against every grain of their corporate culture.”
But Walmart’s business model appears otherwise unchanged, and its suppliers say the company’s foundational obsession with cost hasn’t waned. “They’ll find whoever has the lowest price in the country, and you have to be less than that,” explained one salad dressing CEO who asked to remain anonymous to protect his business interests. “Then, they’ll lower it every few years. If you don’t say yes, they pull your product.”
Walmart declined repeated requests to provide interviews for this story and declined to answer a detailed list of questions related to our reporting. Instead, the company’s public relations team sent a link to this webpage with data and information on Walmart’s “Regeneration of Natural Resources: Forests, Land, Oceans.”
A representative for the Walton Family Foundation also declined interview requests and sent brief comments via email rather than answering specific questions. The head of communications for Builders Vision, Lukas Walton’s company, declined a request for an interview with Lukas but provided an interview with an executive.
“They’ll find whoever has the lowest price in the country, and you have to be less than that. . . . Then, they’ll lower it every few years. If you don’t say yes, they pull your product.”
That reluctance to engage, paired with their overwhelming influence, makes it hard to predict how the Waltons’ businesses and fortune will shape the food system at a critical moment. (Because of the scale of their wealth and their vast web of trusts, corporations, and philanthropies, it’s also difficult to pin down how connected each family member is to Walmart.)
As the planet faces a climate and biodiversity crisis, the family’s investments could coincide with a fundamental supply shift at Walmart, driving truly resilient, regenerative farming at scale. But past and present evidence points to another likely scenario: Walmart could water down the meaning of “regenerative” to fit into its low-cost model, reducing regenerative farming’s potential to endure and help reverse the effects of climate change.
“Regenerative economics and capitalism don’t play well together. They have different sets of rules,” says environmental scientist and financial activist David LeZaks, the managing director of Food System 6, a company working to accelerate innovations in regenerative agriculture.
‘Big Box’ Organic?
That decision to drive prices down helped Walmart gain grocery ground. But it also helped to create industrialized organic farms that look entirely different than the organic farms that came before them.
Ron Rosmann can’t remember the exact year, but it was around 2010 when Walmart executives landed their private jet near his farm in Harlan, Iowa. Rosmann’s 700-acre organic operation is an anomaly in the region. He stopped using pesticides in the early 1980s, got certified organic in the ‘90s, and over time, built a highly diversified farm that produces corn, oats, wheat, barley, and vegetables while raising cattle, chickens, and pigs outdoors.
Walmart could water down the meaning of “regenerative” to fit into its low-cost model, reducing regenerative farming’s potential to endure and help reverse the effects of climate change.
He’s especially proud of the fact that because of his self-sustaining system that produces natural fertilizers for his crops, he hasn’t purchased a pound of nitrogen since 1982. “That is just absolutely unheard of,” he says.
Rosmann’s success made him a leader in organic farming, and when Walmart executives visited, they arrived eager to learn more about how they could start selling more food from farms like his. He was happy to educate. However, after the trip, no one from Walmart ever called to place an order, he said. “Their model says, ‘Let’s just buy from as few as sources as possible for uniformity and all these efficiencies,’ so that in itself leaves the small vegetable growers out of the picture,” he said.
Instead, Walmart helped create what those in the industry now call “big box” organic, produced by commercial growers to meet the minimum required by the USDA seal. In other words, the companies don’t use chemical pesticides or fertilizers, but they raise animals indoors and farm tens of thousands of acres of fruits and vegetables, then move them all over the world.
Walmart is “the number one seller of organic, but I’ve never heard of one organic farmer who sells to them,” says Dave Chapman, an organic tomato farmer in Vermont who co-founded the Real Organic Project, a new certification intended to protect the interests of small, organic farmers from the corporate takeover of organic food. “But that doesn’t mean they aren’t affecting all of us. They are. By offering food so inexpensively, they set a standard to which all others are compared.”
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Author: Lisa Held