The market's rating system is supposed to help you understand the quality of produce better—but some organic farmers have beef with the program
When you buy food, you want to know where it comes from, right? Whole Foods thought so too—that's why they launched their Responsibly Grown program, which gives customers insight into the ethics and practices that go on at the farms they buy from, last fall.
“Responsibly Grown asks suppliers to answer 41 questions about growing practices on topics including pest management, soil health, water conservation and protection, energy, waste, farm worker welfare, and biodiversity,” explains Matt Rogers, global produce coordinator for Whole Foods. Each question is worth a certain number of points, and based on this calculation, the farm is given a "good," "better," or "best" rating, which is then reflected on a sign at the store.
This plan seems like a great way to empower shoppers, but some farmer’s aren’t too happy about it. That's because—even though organic status has long been held as the benchmark of quality produce and a quality farm—some growers who have jumped through United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) hoops to score the official organic seal aren’t necessarily graded higher than a non-organic farm that may put a ton of effort into the health of their soil and energy conservation.
How could this happen? Well, being organic is just one of the factors the Responsibly Grown program takes into consideration. It also looks at critical agricultural issues that impact human and environmental health, and aims to reward any grower who takes major steps to tackle such issues, Rogers says. The view of the farmers: "Organic is responsibly grown, for goodness sake," California fruit grower Vernon Peterson told NPR. And it's important to note that Whole Foods agrees with that sentiment: “Simply put, there is no replacement for the organic seal and the standards it represents,” Rogers says. The Responsibly Grown rating system was designed to provide an additional layer of transparency on product signage, he adds.
That's why produce signs now display both the farm’s rating as well as the word “organic” when applicable. (Is organic food better for you? It does have more antioxidants and fewer pesticides.)
While we definitely sympathize with the farmers who are seemingly being demoted, they may be underestimating the Whole Foods customer. The market notoriously holds all their products to high standards, and shoppers already assume that the produce in the store is of great quality. Our takeaway: As long as you take whether or not a food is organic into account, it's important (and cool!) to recognize extra efforts that all farms take when it comes to growing your food the good way.