A once strong relationship between Whole Foods Market and organic farmers may slowly be eroding.
The high-end grocer's new produce rating system rewards environmentally friendly farm practices such as those "that reduce air pollution and conserve energy," according to the store's website. But what seems like a progressive step may come at the expense of the very farmers with whom Whole Foods has, until now, enjoyed a mutually beneficial dynamic.
According to an article in The New York Times, some organic farmers claim that the new system could convince customers that non-organic produce is "just as good — or even better — than their organically grown products." That's because under the program -- called Responsibly Grown -- produce of all kinds are labeled "good," "better" or "best" based on a number of Whole Foods-created criteria, including "establishing a garbage recycling program, relying more on alternative energy sources, eliminating some pesticides and setting aside a portion of fields as a conservation area," the Times reports.
The notion that those practices render produce on par with organic fruits and vegetables, some say, is a false equivalence that unfairly burdens the organic farmer. According to a letter five farmers sent on Thursday to Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey, “Whole Foods has done so much to help educate consumers about the advantages of eating an organic diet. This new rating program undermines, to a great degree, that effort.”
According to The Times, Mackey has "acknowledged the impact the rising demand in organic foods was having on his company." While the Organic Trade Association notes an 11% increase in organic food sales, the cost of Whole Foods stock has plummeted in recent months.
Whole Foods' associate global produce coordinator Matt Rogers told The Times Responsibly Grown pushes conventional farmers toward organic standards. Still, he admitted it's possible for non-organic farmers to receive a "best" rating while using pesticides -- a practice forbidden by federal regulation for organic farmers. His solution? Whole Foods, he told The Times, will assist farmers who struggle financially to participate in the new program.