I often get asked questions about labels, and with good reason, there are so many these days. Produce alone can be USDA Organic, Rainforest Alliance, Protected Harvest, Food Alliance, Certified Naturally Grown, Fairtrade, and more. The biggest, most recognizable brand we have is USDA Certified Organic, it has the best infrastructure in place, and farms are audited by an independent third party. But that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. The USDA label focusses only on the life cycle of that crop, considering use of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, fertilizers, and also the source of the seed. The approach is similar to the ‘chain of custody’ applied to evidence, in that legal and chronological documentation is required, recording every step – in plants, that is from seed to harvest. That puts a different perspective on it, doesn’t it?
Here is the problem with USDA Certified Organic: the label doesn’t address other environmental or socio-economic practices. For instance, what type of irrigation system does the farmer use? Is it drip line, sprinkler, gravity, flooding, rotational, furrow, sub irrigation, or surface irrigation? And where is the water drawn from? Some irrigation methods are more environmentally friendly and responsible than others, and some sources are more sustainable than others (wells, rivers, dams, rain barrels, reservoirs). And then there is the matter of staff welfare to consider: are workers paid a fair wage? Do they have access to medical? What about working conditions? Health, and safety? Many farms have workers living on-site, are the living conditions adequate? What about bio-diversity on the farm, is there a ‘sacrificial conservation section’ that helps maintain plant and insect biodiversity? What about composting, soil fertility, energy use . . . the list can go on.
There is no wide-spread certification option that covers all these issues, which are of increasing importance to consumers. And this is what prompted Wholefoods to design its own rating system. They have come up with a responsibility rating that took three years to develop that looks at wide range of factors from worker welfare, and environmental impact to social responsibility. The problem is that farms around the country are spending $5’000-20’000 to comply with the program, and it has organic farmers up in arms because some conventional farmers are receiving a better rating. The system grades things as ‘good, better, best’ – and the New York Times found that conventionally grown asparagus from Mexico was rated ‘best’ at a store in Capitola, CA 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. “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.”
Personally, I understand the desire to communicate important issues around how food is grown to consumers – of course I do – and I also intimately understand some of the challenges. I think Whole Foods is also trying to evolve and change their image as they face increasing pressure from other grocery store retailers who continue to increase their Certified Organic offerings – last year for the first time, Costco surpassed Whole Foods as the nation’s largest retailer of organic produce. I am not sure putting more pressure on farmers, or detracting from USDA labels is the way to go, it would have a greater impact to work together to try and improve the USDA certification to include some of the other evolving priorities.
Source: New York Times