Austin-based Whole Foods Market is rolling out a new rating system for its fruits and vegetables. Its Responsibly Grown Rating System hopes to illuminate the farming practices in play where your produce was grown.
Whole Foods’ goals? To reward growers who follow sustainable practices, reduce the use of harmful pesticides, and give customers more transparency into the nature of the food they eat. Sounds good, right? Want to know more? Let’s dig in.
How Whole Foods is Rating Farming Practices
We shared Whole Foods’ intent to label “responsibly grown” food in a post we wrote about a year ago. Here’s how that commitment has played out in the form of its Responsibly Grown Rating System, which is now being implemented.
To achieve a “Good” rating, growers must meet 16 criteria for protecting human health and the environment. They must be GMO-transparent and steer clear of irradiation and biosolids. Those with more advanced sustainability practices — like conserving water and energy and emphasizing farmworker health and safety — are considered “Better.” And those rated “Best” go further by using methods designed to protect bees and butterflies and providing industry leadership. Peruse this graphic for more details.
A Step in the Right Direction — But I Have Questions
An estimated 5.2 billion pounds of pesticides are used each year worldwide — harmful chemicals with proven detriment. Reducing that use is obviously a good thing. As is protecting our air, soil, and water, and treating farmworkers fairly. But I’m wondering about a few things…
1. The “Unrated” category depicted in the graphic above could represent a large portion of Whole Foods’ produce inventory. What’s its scoop? How was that stuff grown? The graphic says: “Not yet rated in key areas of sustainability,” but is there a “Rated but fell short” category?
2. I haven’t been able to locate the precise metrics related to the “16 farming practices” Whole Foods requires to be “Good.” Yeah, this could be a result of poor research skills, but I think it would’ve been front and center of this campaign. The practices fall into the following categories: Soil Health; Air, Energy, and Climate; Waste Reduction; Farmworker Welfare; Water Conservation & Protection; Ecosystems & Biodiversity; and Pest Management. But where are the scorecards with weighted ratings and overall grower metrics? Bottom line: If I’m seeking true transparency, I want more than a one-word label on the food I might buy.
3. We wrote recently about the produce supply chain and how difficult it is to find out where your produce was actually pulled from the earth or tree. I assume Whole Foods has nailed its knowledge of its produce supply chain, enabling them to identify the original growers. If that’s the case, why is it so hard for the general public to do the same?
4. I’d love to have a broader perspective on the grower. If he raises livestock, does he focus on animal welfare? If her hens lay eggs, are those birds happy and well-treated? Though technically that doesn’t directly impact something being responsibly grown, it could affect my choice to buy his or her produce.
I applaud Whole Foods for the efforts they make to improve the availability of healthy food and reveal its origins. I love their organic, air-chilled chicken. They have the best cheese selection in my area. And I can shop for groceries with a glass of wine from their grilled cheese and wine bar in my hand. I’m a fan.
But would I pay more for produce labeled with one vague word describing the grower’s practices? I’m not sure. What’s your perspective?
Image Credit: Produce via Shutterstock