By Henry Miller at Forbes
Whole Foods has introduced a rating system for produce and flowers, “Responsibly Grown,” which is based on a number of factors. It has enraged organic farmers, who think that the designation “organic” automatically entitles them to superior ratings. They’re wrong.
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said about the sides in the Iran-Iraq war, “It’s a pity they can’t both lose.” That’s how I feel about the partisans in the Battle of the Ripoff Artists, Whole Foods and the organic growers who sell to them.
Whole Foods—which is widely known as “Whole Paycheck” because of its exorbitant prices–has concocted a rating system for produce and flowers called “Responsibly Grown.” Apparently intended to inform customers about the karma or cosmic worth of a product, it takes into consideration such factors as how the farmers that grew the product protect the soil and wildlife on their farms, their use of pesticides, how they conserve energy and water, treatment of their workers, and the astrological signs of their managers. (OK, I made up that last one.) Whole Foods then prominently displays the rating: Unrated, Good, Better or Best.
In order to have their products rated, farmers must pay a fee to Whole Foods and fill out a lengthy questionnaire.
For several reasons, the squabble is silly. First of all, the Whole Foods system is both arbitrary and superfluous (as are many of Whole Foods’ restrictions on what they’ll stock, but that’s another story). For relatively inexpensive commodities like lettuce, corn and tomatoes, why can’t consumers simply try the product once and decide whether they like it?
Moreover, there’s no way to check on farmers’ claims. Does Whole Foods intend to send out an army of inspectors to verify farmers’ answers to the questionnaire?
Many organic growers are incensed at Whole Foods. National Public Radio science reporter Dan Charles explains why:
At a Whole Foods store in Washington, D.C., I found non-organic onions and tomatoes, presumably grown with standard fertilizers and pesticides, that were labeled “Best.” A few feet away, I found organic onions and tomatoes that were graded merely “Good” or just “Unrated.”
This is a no-brainer: A savvy shopper would buy the non-organic produce, which is both higher-rated and undoubtedly much cheaper.
Charles quotes a California organic fruit farmer who is outraged and puzzled by this. “Organic is responsibly grown, for goodness sake,” he says. “Organic should be the foundation of anything that Whole Foods might do.” He and other organic farmers want a bye, or at least strong preference, just for meeting USDA’s criteria for “certified organic.”
However, organic agriculture is anything but responsible. It is an expensive and expansive hoax perpetrated on consumers and is harmful to the environment. A study by Israel’s Institute for Water Research at Ben-Gurion University, published in 2013 in the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, found that “intensive organic agriculture relying on solid organic matter, such as composted manure that is implemented in the soil prior to planting as the sole fertilizer, resulted in significant down-leaching of nitrate” into groundwater. With many of the world’s most fertile farming regions in the throes of drought, increased nitrate in groundwater is hardly a hallmark of sustainability.
Moreover, as agricultural scientist Steve Savage has documented, wide-scale composting generates significant amounts of greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide.
Because of its systematic rejection of many advanced methods and technologies, organic farming produces far less food per unit of land and water than conventional ones. The low yields of organic agriculture—typically 20%-50% less than conventional agriculture—impose various stresses on farmland and especially on water consumption. A British meta-analysispublished in 2012 in the Journal of Environmental Management found that “ammonia emissions, nitrogen leaching and nitrous oxide emissions per product unit were higher from organic systems” than conventional farming systems, as were “land use, eutrophication potential and acidification potential per product unit.”
Is organically-produced food healthier, as many consumers believe? A study published in 2012 in the Annals of Internal Medicine by researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Health Policy aggregated and analyzed data from 237 studies to determine whether organic foods are safer or healthier than non-organic foods. They concluded that fruits and vegetables that met the criteria for “organic” were on average no more nutritious than their far cheaper conventional counterparts, nor were those foods less likely to be contaminated by pathogenic bacteria like E. coli or Salmonella.
Whole Paycheck Whole Foods in San Francisco
As for contamination, organic foods are notorious for it. According to former Secretary of Agriculture John Block, “Organic foods are recalled four to eight times more frequently than their conventional counterparts.” This is hardly surprising. Aside from the presence of pathogenic bacteria, organic grains are particularly susceptible to toxins from fungi.
Block has harsh criticism for the government’s lax regulation of organic agriculture: “The marketers of organic food are allowed to make scientifically false and misleading claims about the safety and wholesomeness of conventional food, while their products are increasingly likely to be recalled for safety reasons.”
Maybe Whole Foods should introduce another category for ratings, which would encompass everything organic: “Wasteful of water and arable land, often contaminated, and harmful to the environment.”
• • • •
Deprogramming A Vegan
(Hat tip: “B-Squared”
• • • •
… and, in closing:
(With a hat tip to Steven Hayward)