Organic agriculture may avoid synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, but there are a growing number of voices concerned about the environmental impact of large-scale, monoculture organics too. Similarly, while mainstream industrial agriculture has caused countless environmental problems, there are some conventional growers taking significant steps to improve their impact, without necessarily going all the way organic.
Whole Foods' new Responsibly Grown certification program, which has been appearing next to produce and flowers over the past few months, aims to move the needle toward better farming overall—pushing conventional farmers to reduce their chemical use and protect their soils, and pushing organics to do more with issues like energy conservation/renewables and farm worker welfare.
Much like the company's existing rating systems on animal husbandry and cleaning products, the system is based on a continuum—setting a baseline for minimum compliance to earn a "Good" (no Whole Foods banned pesticides, no irradiation, no biosolids, GMO transparency etc), and then a raft of extra measures to earn "Better" (all of the above, plus advanced soil health; water and energy conservation; protecting rivers, lakes and oceans; farm worker health and safety) and "Best" (also includes extra measures to protect bees and butterflies, as well as industry leading pest management and environmental protection.)
There are, of course, a number of reasons why this matters.
While we love the growth of small-scale agroecology and the spread of farmers' markets everywhere, it seems likely that a large proportion of our food will continue to come from big farms and major industrial farming operations. If Whole Foods can help influence all of those farms—both organic and conventional—to take extra steps to reduce chemical and energy use, increase soil health (including sequestering soil carbon), and protecting pollinators, it could help shift a huge amount of acreage to much less damaging forms of cultivation.
Many conventional farmers may find themselves surprised by the efficacy of natural techniques like Integrated Pest Management. Who knows, maybe this proves a gateway drug—moving them toward investing in soil, reducing (expensive!) chemical inputs and considering a different way of farming.
Importantly, Responsibly Grown was developed in partnership with several leading authorities on agricultural sustainability, including the Integrated Pest Management Institute, Pesticide Data Central and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
Whole Foods is quick to point out that the rating system is intended as complementary to, not a replacement for, other certifications and designations like organic or local. Over 50% of the produce sold in stores has been rated already, and the eventual goal is 100%.
In a world where other mainstream grocery stores are beginning to compete on organics, this is also a smart business move on Whole Foods' behalf—by positioning itself as an advocate and influencer, Whole Foods is once again hoping to set a tone for others to follow.