On Oct. 15, Whole Foods Market launched a new rating system called "Responsibly Grown" that assesses its fruits, vegetables and flowers based on how their growing practices affect people's health and the environment.
The produce will be labeled “good,” “better,” or “best” to help shoppers make more informed choices, the company says on its website. The new initiative also prohibits “some of the most hazardous neurotoxins still allowed in agriculture,” Whole Foods said.
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 EPA-registered pesticides, regardless of the produce's country of origin. Growers also cannot use biosolids or irradiation and must disclose the use of GMOs.
A “better” rating indicates even more responsible growing practices, and a “best” rating indicates exceptional, industry-leading performance in a scoring system covering multiple topics in key categories including:
- Pest management (e.g. using beneficial insects to control pests);
- Farmworker welfare (e.g. providing protective equipment for workers);
- Water conservation and protection (e.g. using efficient irrigation techniques);
- Enhancing soil health (e.g. adding compost to soil; rotating crops);
- Ecosystems and biodiversity (e.g. planting wildflowers to restore natural bee habitat for pollinator protection);
- Waste reduction (e.g. recycling plastics used in the field);
- Air, energy and climate (e.g. using solar panels).
To start the initiative, Whole Foods will rate hundreds of products from key supplier — more than 50 percent of its produce nationwide. The goal of reaching 100 percent ratings of all fruits, vegetables and flowers will be achieved over time, the company said.
Whole Foods says it started the initiative to address some of the serious challenges facing agriculture today, such as the fact that about 5.2 billion pounds of pesticides are used worldwide each year; agriculture uses 70% of the world’s accessible fresh water; about one-third of the world’s farmable land has been lost through erosion and other degradation in the last 55 years; and the fact that while pollinators are crucial to more than two-thirds of the world’s crop species, bee and butterfly populations are in serious decline.
The program's key goals, Whole Foods says, are to "reward farmers who work hard to protect human health and the environment" and to "prohibit the most harmful chemicals; measure and reduce the rest."
Ken Cook, founder and president of the Environmental Working Group, said Whole Foods' new standards for pesticides were especially significant.
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“The long-standing line among most American produce retailers amounts to ‘our produce meets government pesticide standards,'” Cook said in a release. “Instead, Whole Foods is saying, in essence, ‘government pesticide standards are not good enough for our customers — not good enough for their health and not good enough for the environment that they want to protect through responsible shopping.'”
He added: "EWG applauds Whole Foods for its strong leadership and for creating its 'Responsibly Grown' rating system to give shoppers safer produce. We will be eager to see if other major produce retailers step up their game to match."