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Whole foods has its own definition for ‘responsibly grown’ and it’s meaningless

April 17, 2017 | Vegetarianism &Veganism

Whole foods has its own definition for ‘responsibly grown’ and it’s meaningless


For Friends of Animals, something is either organic or it’s not, which means it’s grown conventionally and doused in chemicals and pesticides—or it’s not.


But Whole Foods “responsibly grown” marketing scam, which implies “responsibly grown” produce utilizes organic practices, is actually an empty promise for consumers.


That’s because Whole Foods’ responsibly grown labelling policy, which they’ve been cashing in on for a few years and updated in January 2017 after criticism, doesn’t reward growers who don’t use pesticides, it simply “restricts growers to using only U.S. Environmental Protection Agency EPA registered pesticides.”


In other words, growers are rewarded for utilizing toxic inputs, including synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, that are not permitted under organic standards as codified in the Organic Foods Production Act. Hence, a more appropriate label should be “irresponsibly grown.”


The “only EPA registered pesticides” requirement for Responsibly Grown is a lot of bluster with very little substance, says Drew Toher, community resource and policy director for DC-based Beyond Pesticides. “What Whole Foodscontinues to do is frustrating, especially since they received all this criticism for their original scheme, went back to the drawing board and apparently came up with this confusing mess,” Toher said.


Toher points out that most of the “prohibited” chemicals in the updated Responsibly Grown policy are already completely banned for food use in the United States, so they are illegal anyways. “It’s odd and frankly disingenuous to say they’re not using banned pesticides as part of their marketing for this program. That’s simply a federal requirement, no growers should be using banned pesticides because banned means they’re illegal under federal law,” Toher said.


And unsuspecting customers might not realize that other chemicals that “impair neurological development and are broadly toxic to many beneficial organisms” are not prohibited or restricted by the policy, Toher points out. Furthermore, Whole Foods’ restricted list for plants and flowers only includes four neonicotinoids, which are detrimental to pollinators, however there are a number of other chemicals in the neonic category with very similar toxicities that don’t have restrictions.


“Based on Whole Foods’ prohibited pesticide addendum, it looks like Whole Foods is acting as a quazi-regulatory agency for their overseas producers. I don’t understand why they just wouldn’t encourage all their suppliers to get USDA organic certification as those standards are much stricter than what they’ve put together,” Toher said.


The “organic” produce system at Whole Foods seems to be designed to specifically confuse consumers. While shopping, you’re inundated with large signs above bins of fruits and vegetables saying “organic” suggesting everything in the section uses organic standards, when in fact “Responsibly grown” creates its own rating scheme distinct from organic standards.  


“The Responsibly Grown system may look attractive at first glance, especially if shoppers do not school themselves in understanding the rating system,” said Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides in an expose of the rating scheme. “But when the rating system was unveiled, organic farmers criticized the grocery store chain, maintaining that it undermines organic agriculture and lacks the stringent standards and certification process required by organic law.”


Adding insult to injury, Whole Foods is cashing in on this meaningless policy. Responsibly Grown growers have to pay a fee to subscribe to a Whole Foods website and fill out a questionnaire. Whole Foods then follows up with more questions before determining what rating, if any, a supplier will get. 

FoA’s recent interview with a Whole Foods’ manager in Boston confirmed that none of the produce is actually tested to see if it has residue from “restricted” pesticides. And the company does not mandate on-site inspections with suppliers to validate their practices in person.


So why do we care and why should you? Conventional agricultural practices have contributed to climate change through heavy use of fossil fuels—both directly on the farm and in the manufacturing of pesticides and fertilizers—and through degradation of the soil, which releases carbon, according to Beyond Pesticides. The adoption of organic methods, particularly no-till organic, is an opportunity for farming both to mitigate agriculture's contributions to climate change and to cope with the effects climate change has had, and will have, on agriculture and wildlife.


Based on what we’ve seen from Whole Foods, we don’t trust rating schemes that create marketplace confusion when shopping for organic produce. We recommend the gold standard, according to Toher, choosing local AND organic produce growers who don’t put profit over the environment.


And if you must purchase from a retailer, choose produce that is USDA certified organic.


“The wide assortment of labels and claims made on products at the grocery store can be confusing, but consumers wishing to support truly responsible farming practices can simplify their decisions by paying attention to one: USDA certified organic,” Toher said. “Buying certified organic products is the best, and only way to ensure what your purchase doesn’t contain toxic pesticides that harm people, pollinators and environmental health,” said Drew Toher, community resource and policy director for Beyond Pesticides.”


Darien-based Friends of Animals, an international animal protection organization founded in 1957, advocates for the rights of animals, free-living and domestic around the world.


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