Whole Foods Wants You to Know What Is ‘Responsibly Grown’

If you’ve ever wondered about the secret history of pesticides in supermarket produce in the non-organic aisles, you are the customer Whole Foods Market expects to care about its Responsibly Grown rating system rolled out this week.  The new system labels fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers as “good,” “better” or “best.” Rated products prohibit some of the most hazardous neurotoxins still allowed in agriculture in a world that uses an estimated 5.2-billion pounds of pesticides a year.

Equally important, the ratings applaud farmers working to rebuild the health of the soil, to restore safe habitats for plummeting populations of bees and butterflies critical to pollinating most of the world’s food crops, to protect the health of farm workers and to conserve water and energy.

To earn a “good” rating, a farm must take 16 major steps to protect air, soil, water and human health. Growers must also comply with the Responsibly Grown pesticide policy, which restricts growers to using only U.S. Environmental Protection Agency registered pesticides, regardless of the country of origin.  Thus farms outside the U.S. cannot supply Whole Foods Market with fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers grown using pesticides not allowed in the U.S., with very limited exceptions including for crops not grown in the U.S. Growers also cannot use biosolids or irradiation and must commit to GMO transparency.  Unknown to many consumers, residues of pesticides prohibited in U.S. agriculture by the EPA are found in many imported foods. The list of  these contraband pesticides, many reaching American tables, is chilling.

According to a Whole Foods release, “Prohibited pesticides include several organophosphate insecticides, which recent studies indicate can impair neurological development in children born to mothers exposed in diet or by working in agriculture and living in nearby communities.”

A “better” rating indicates advanced performance and a “best” rating indicates exceptional, industry-leading performance in a scoring system covering multiple topics in each of these key categories:

  • Pest management (e.g. using beneficial insects to control pests)
  • Farmworker welfare (providing protective equipment for workers)
  • Water conservation and protection (using efficient irrigation techniques)
  • Enhancing soil health (adding compost to soil; planting cover crops)
  • Ecosystems and biodiversity (planting wildflowers to restore natural bee habitat for pollinator protection)
  • Waste reduction (recycling plastics used in the field)
  • Air, energy and climate (solar panels for renewable energy)

As it launches its program, which was three years in development, Whole Food has rated hundreds of products with key suppliers, more than 50 percent of produce nationwide. At some point the rating system will extend to thousands of products.

If you’ve ever tasted a salad made with deeply flavored, dark green, shiny leaved lacinato kale from Blue Moon Farm, you won’t be surprised Whole Foods rates all the vegetables from Blue Moon Farm as best.  Says Blue Moon’s founder and grower Tom Beddard, ”Being truly sustainable means more than just not using harmful chemicals. Energy conservation is a big focus for us, so we installed solar panels on the packing house at our farm, which accounts for 20 percent of energy consumption on the farm. We incorporate many different practices with a promise to put more into the soil than we take out, ensuring more fertile farms and making the earth a safer place for all of us.”

Responsibly Grown addresses the primary threats facing pollinators including high risk pesticide use, loss of habitat and disease spread from managed bees to wild pollinators.  Four of the most common neonicotinoids currently allowed in the U.S. will be prohibited for growers to reach the Responsibly Grown best level. Many growers, scientists, environmentalists and beekeepers are concerned about the impact of these pesticides on bees and other pollinators.

“As a result of this program, we are already hearing from fruit and vegetable farmers who are creating wildflower-rich habitat for bees and working to reduce or eliminate pesticides on farms from New Jersey to Iowa to California,” said Eric Mader, assistant pollinator program director for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. “This type of action is the first and most important step in reversing the ongoing decline of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.”

Whole Foods’ release also quotes Dr. Charles Benbrook, research professor and program leader for the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Washington State University: “I applaud the courage and conviction of Whole Foods Market, and its growers and suppliers, for taking decisive action on more than a dozen high-risk pesticides. The next generation of Americans will be the primary beneficiaries of this bold step.”