After Spat Over Ratings, Whole Foods Makes Nice With Organic Farmers

The grocer’s new ‘responsibly grown’ campaign is being tweaked to emphasize organically grown produce.

(Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Jul 15, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

In 2003, long before food retail giants like Walmart got into the game, Whole Foods marked a first in the grocery world: It became certified organic. Not in the sense that it sold some organic items throughout its various aisles. No, Quality Assurance International, “a federally recognized independent third-party certification organization,” deemed the entire grocery store “organic”—despite Whole Foods selling an extensive amount of nonorganic items.

What that designation means is probably lost on consumers—the certification is granted to chains that handle “organic goods according to stringent national guidelines”—but it’s a great marketing tool. If you’re buying food from an organic grocery store, it has to be good for you, right?

The grocer’s “responsibly grown” rating system for produce, which was announced last year, appeared to further blunt Whole Foods’ organic bona fides: It would have labeled some conventional, imported produce “Best” while a similar product from a local, organic farm would be considered “Good.” A group of organic growers, which wrote a letter to co-CEO John Mackey in May, complained that the rating system “is onerous, expensive, and shifts the cost of this marketing initiative to growers, many of whom are family-scale farmers with narrow profit margins.”

But as a joint press release from the California Certified Organic Farmers and Whole Foods announced on Tuesday, the system is being overhauled. The adjustments “will ensure that the leading achievement of USDA’s certified organic growing system is recognized within the rating system and clearly communicated to Whole Foods Market customers,” according to the statement. Products from certified organic growers will receive a “Good” rating by default until the beginning of 2016, giving them a chance to make changes according to Whole Foods’ rating criteria.

So, Why Should You Care? Organic farming may not be perfect—the USDA program is a set of pragmatic standards, not an ideology—but it goes a long way toward limiting the ecological effects of agriculture, which can be significant and damaging. As Whole Foods points out on its website, 5.2 billion pounds of pesticides are used annually around the globe, and agriculture produces between 10 and 12 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions humans create.

As Mark Lipson, a farmer who has worked extensively on organic policy issues, wrote in a post for Civil Eats, “It’s important that organic farming has been brought back to the center of the ‘responsible farming’ discussions.”

“The success of certified organic agriculture (as imperfect as it may be) is the reason we can even debate how to best embody and reward sustainable growing practices within today’s ruthless market system,” he continued. “Organic is not passé. It is not just the ‘floor’ of values-based food marketing. It is the foundation, the bone marrow, the humus-building loam of environmental and social sustainability in the agricultural economy.”