By Sue Futrell
Media commenters from both the conventional produce industry and environmental advocates have been quick to pounce on the new Whole Foods Produce Ratings, announced this week. The rating system, called Responsibly Grown, sorts fresh produce and floral into Unrated, Good, Better and Best categories, in hopes of setting a higher bar for growing practices by suppliers to WF and giving consumers the holy grail of something short, simple and catchy to make their shopping choices easier.
The criticisms range from the sweeping and defensive: “when you say your stuff is better it makes our stuff look bad;” to the impatient and cranky: “look how flawed this is, especially because they are using the same language (transparency) as McDonalds and therefore can’t be trusted.”
Most of the commentary doesn’t appear to have looked very closely at the WF program, and relies on a more thoroughly researched piece by Stephanie Strom in the NYTimes for second-hand sound bytes. NPR/WBUR also did a story that included more background and acknowledged the challenges WF faces in tackling something like this.
But already a quote from John Lyman of Lyman Orchards, one of the farmers we work with at Red Tomato, is being taken out of context and bounced around as a cute way of making fun of WF. Except that after John said ‘they want us to count earthworms,’ he went on to say that, as a grower who goes to extensive lengths to use eco-friendly practices on his farm, and usually gets lumped under the conventional label with no way to tell consumers about how he actually farms, he appreciates that Whole Foods is trying to do better.
That’s what all of the snarking doesn’t leave room for: trying to do better.
WF has taken on something that both the conventional and the ecological sides of the conversation say is badly needed: how do we create meaningful ways to define and measure sustainable practices in order to help our food system become moreso; and how do we help consumers–notoriously busy, impatient and with short attention spans while shopping for groceries– make choices that align with their concerns. Why make fun of Whole Foods for trying?
We can say first hand, because we’ve gone through the rating process for a number of products and farms that supply WF via Red Tomato–the rating screen is extensive, ambitious, sometimes frustrating, requires extremely detailed responses to questions of farmers about their practices, and is based on imperfect but serious measures for a range of conservation and pest management practices that ordinarily are not the least bit visible to the end consumer.
That doesn’t even begin to touch on the extensive labeling and tracking of shipments from farm to store it takes to actually have the ratings show up on the store shelf. There is a massive focus on traceability underway in the entire food industry, especially produce. It is mainly driven by consumer concerns about food safety. Much of it leaves small and mid-size farms completely out of the process because the technology requirements are steep. Whole Foods, on the other hand, has gone to extra lengths to provide free labelling software and one-on-one support for growers and small suppliers like Red Tomato so we can provide the traceability needed. It’s a lot of extra work; but we don’t think traceability is a bad thing for those of us in the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food crowd.
We have problems with parts of the Rating system, for sure. Some of the blanket prohibitions on specific pesticides don’t make sense in every situation, for example; but that’s true with any attempt to create global standards that cover all crops despite differences of geography and climate. We’ll continue to push Whole Foods to allow for more nuance in those areas, and for the farmers we work with to be given room to make the right decisions for their farms.
Farmers, meanwhile, are beginning to be not just frustrated, but a bit angry at the degree to which consumers, and the retailers who compete for their shopping dollars, have claimed the right to tell them how to farm. The farmers we work with are smart, experienced growers. They understand marketing, and they share the concerns about health and environmental quality and worker safety. They are more than willing to address these by trying new practices, building the health of their farm ecosystems and pushing their pesticide use as low as they can. Every decision they make can mean they are risking their crops and in some cases the viability of their farms. But they don’t see anyone–retailers, government, or consumers–stepping up to share that risk. When a grower holds back a spray application for an emerging pest because he knows that by spraying, he will disappoint or be shut out of a major customer, and then loses the crop that year, and maybe for several years to come, the rest of us just find another place to buy our fruits and vegetables. The financial loss hits only the farmer.
So yea, likely some of them would rather not be counting earthworms to prove they are taking care of the soil in their orchard. But on the other hand, if someone who’s buying their fruit actually cares about the soil in their orchard, that’s not a bad thing. It might be a start toward something better.
None of this is simple. It’s also not optional–most everyone who is paying attention agrees that we need to move our food and farm systems toward more sustainable practices, and soon. Rather than take cheap shots at Whole Foods and the growers who are trying to find a way through that challenging path, it would be nice to see the industry and consumer advocacy media give a little more thoughtful coverage to those attempts. Really digging in to the the realities of that hard process might help all of us figure out how we can do better.