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Whole Foods’ new rating system angers organic farmers

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Is Whole Foods abandoning the small time organic farmer? (iStock)

Whole Foods has a new rating system that is upsetting organic farmers -many of whom helped make the supermarket into what it is today.

Responsibly Grown is the grocer’s new  labeling system that ranks produce as “good,” “better” or “best” based on criteria like pesticide use, sustainability, water use and more. 

According to the new criteria, conventionally grown produce may receive a better rating than organic fruits and vegetables. A farmer that does not meet federal requirements for organic certification can score better by establishing a recycling program, eliminating pesticides or reserving a portion of its fields as a part of a “conversation area.”

And this new score card is leaving a bad taste in many organic farmers’ mouths who previously enjoyed a good relationship with Whole Foods.

According to the New York Times, farmers around the country are spending between $5,000 to $20,000 to comply with the new program’s highest rating.

“Whole Foods has done so much to help educate consumers about the advantages of eating an organic diet,” a group of five farmers wrote in a statement to John Mackey, the co-founder and co-chief executive of Whole Foods, on Thursday. “This new rating program undermines, to a great degree, that effort.”

The New York Times found that conventionally grown asparagus from Mexico was rated best at a store in Capitola, Calif. going for $4.99. In Cupertino, a pile of organic asparagus from Durst Organic Growers was rated “good,” the lowest Responsibly Grown rating, for $7.99. Whole Foods says farmers have to get 220 points on their rating system to be awarded the “best” label and Jim Durst admitted that maybe he “didn’t fill in the blanks correctly” when it came to labelling his product.

“Becoming organic is a big investment of time and money,” Jeff Larkey of Route 1 Farms, who grows organic fruits and vegetables, told the New York Times. “This ratings system kind of devalues all that — if you can get a ‘best’ rating as a conventional farmer using pesticides and other toxic substances, why would you grow organically?”

The the system isn’t just a hindrance to organic farmers. It’s a sign that the store is changing its ethos as it faces competition from national grocers scrambling to buy up the country’s organic produce. Costco recently surpassed the chain as the nation’s largest retailer of organic produce.

“Back in the day, Whole Foods was buying half of all the organic produce in the country — they helped a lot of organic farms get going,” said Larkey. “Now they’re competing with the large supermarkets, and that may be one reason they’re trying to make conventional look better.”

For its part, Whole Foods is standing by its new system  indicating that organic farmers already have major advantages over conventional growers. More than 60 percent of its 200 suppliers  have gone through the Responsibly Grown program so far and the chain said that it would work with smaller farms who may have trouble paying to participate. 

Organic may have been the gold standard that helped build the Whole Foods empire, but now more issues need to be taken into account. The company hopes that Responsibly Grown, which took three years to develop, will also help conventional suppliers raise their own standards.

“Organic is an incredibly deep standard, and at Whole Foods we celebrate that in very consistent, long-term ways,” Matt Rogers, associate global produce coordinator at Whole Food, told the New York Times. “But the organic standard does not cover water, waste, energy, farmworker welfare, and all of these topics are really important, too.”