Did you think this day would ever come? Organic farmers are ticked off at Whole Foods.
Whole Foods announced a while back that it was going to implement some type of new rating system for its fresh produce and flowers section. Food can now earn a rating of “good,” “better,” or “best” depending on a series of criteria that the chain grocery store has determined make a product “Responsibly Grown.”
To join in the rating system, producers have to pay a fee and fill out a long series of questions about their farming production practices. The topics include pesticides use, water conservation, farmworker welfare, and soil health. You can read the full explanation of those measurements here. Of course, other metrics (which, arguably are more important) are also included, such as whether the production company carries adequate liability insurance and meets food safety standards.
You can review the entire questionnaire here. Some of the questions, especially those required for products to earn a “good” rating are pretty basic. Is your farm following the law? Yes – congratulations! You’ve earned yourself a “good” rating! As the ratings increase, things get a little more hokey – does your farm employ at least 5 of the following methods to reduce pesticide use? Later questions even ask whether your farm facilities are utilizing insulation to reduce energy waste. (But, what if our packing house is only used in the summer and doesn’t have air conditioning anyway?)
Allow me to put a disclaimer here: I do not think it is necessary for Whole Foods to employ such a rating system. In fact, I think it’s a really bad idea. Instead of allowing farmers, crop scientists, and agronomy experts to determine best practices, Whole Foods has essentially just nominated and elected itself Supreme Agriculture Expert. Whole Foods is just a grocery store, an extremely self-obsessed and self-esteemed one, but a grocery store all the same. That hardly qualifies it to pick and choose which production practices it believes are superior to others.
As a grocery store, we need to keep in mind that Whole Foods is primarily about selling food. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that (trust me, I like profits), but we shouldn’t forget this. The ratings system has been set up because Whole Foods has made a calculated decision that this is the type of information its customers want to know.
The bottom line is that every industry has ways that it can improve, including agriculture. But when Whole Foods sets up a rating system to tell us which foods are better, while at the same time embracing so-called “GMO transparency,” I just can’t take it seriously. Biotechnology has benefits for farmers, consumers, and the environment. Without recognizing that, Whole Foods’ rating system is just another pawn in the fear-based marketing game.
Back to the Organic Farmers
So, why exactly are organic farmers ticked off about this new rating system? Because it doesn’t value the USDA’s organic label over all of its other measurements. In fact, depending on how a supplier answers the Whole Foods’ questionnaire, an organic product can actually be rated lower than products grown on conventional farms.
Organic farmers aren’t happy with that fact. Voicing their opposition, many organic farmers think the new Whole Foods’ rating system cheapens the organic label and really should tip the scales in favor of giving organic production a higher rating just because they have a label.
Matt Kastel, founder of the organic activist group the Cornucopia Institute, isn’t happy either. He thinks the rating system puts organic produce in direct competition with conventional produce. He told NPR: “Why would you pay more for a certified organic product, when you can get the ‘Best’ for a couple of dollars a pound cheaper?”
Wait…you mean Whole Foods is going to evaluate farm techniques based on actual measurements (that Whole Foods values), instead of just embracing and promoting a farm simply because it has permission to use that pretty little organic label?
Putting Organic Into Perspective
Organic is simply the premise that something “natural” is always better than something “synthetic.” But that’s a deeply and inherently flawed premise.
For example, earlier this year, my grandmother had her left knee replaced. Her “natural” knee had become painful and didn’t function well. Her “synthetic” knee causes her no pain and functions perfectly each time she uses it. Does anyone really think she should have stuck with her “natural” knee because nature is better? No.
Nature is ruthless. Consumers have been sold a narrative about natural things that just isn’t true. Turn on the National Geographic Channel and watch a pack of lions take advantage of some baby zebra, and then tell me how good nature made you feel. Back in agriculture, adhering to the idea that “natural” should always trump can result in some absurd results. (For example, thinking you need to source a sprout inhibitor from a natural source, when a synthetic version can be created that is more effective and cheaper.)
The same thing is true with the organic label. We’ve been lead to believe (perhaps on purpose) that organic food is somehow superior. Recent research has combated that conclusion, including demonstrating that organic food is not more nutritious than its conventional counterparts. And unless organic farming is ready to embrace biotechnology, you cannot possibly make the argument that organic is inherently better for the environment.
Whole Foods rating system isn’t “cheapening” the organic label, it’s simply putting it into perspective. Choosing “natural” over “synthetic” does not make farming practices inherently better, safe, more nutritious, or even more environmentally-friendly. That’s a false premise that we’ve been consistently sold by organic advocates. Whole Foods’ rating system, whether for the right reasons or the wrong reasons, manages to look beyond the organic label.
At least in that (very limited) sense, Whole Foods actually got it right.