Is the new Whole Foods rating system creating an inferiority complex for zucchini?
On Wednesday, Whole Foods started issuing ratings for its fruit, veggies, and flowers to measure the quality of farming practices. The rating system is simple: Fresh food is divided up as “good,” “better,” and “best.” It’s like getting gold, red, or green stars from your kindergarten teacher! Except it’s Whole Foods, instead of Mrs. Carter, grading you — and it’s judging greenhouse gas emissions, ecosystem management, and farmworker treatment, instead of coloring book pages.
Here is some of what Whole Foods is measuring (click here for the full list):
[F]arming practices that evaluate, protect and improve soil health. Examples include composting, rotating crops and using the latest science to measure and enhance nutrients in the soil.
[F]arming practices that create better working conditions. Examples include reducing pesticide risks, providing protective equipment and participating in third-party auditing programs to promote safe conditions and fair compensation.
[F]arming practices that protect and conserve water. Examples include rainwater collection and drip irrigation.
[F]arming practices that protect native species. Examples include planting “bee-friendly” wildflowers, improving conservation areas and taking steps to protect beneficial insects from harmful chemicals.
Fruits, flowers, and vegetables that come from overseas also have to comply with the rating system — yes, Whole Foods imports produce from overseas — even when the country’s standards for pesticides and soil composition are different.
Retrieving the information to issue the labels is complicated, too, and some farmers have insinuated that the system may be taking things a teeny bit too far. Sellers have to undergo a thorough certification process, answering questions about the minutia of each farms’ practices. Reports the New York Times:
“For instance, they want to know about earthworms and how many I have in my soil,” said Mr. Lyman, whose family has grown apples, peaches, pears, and various berries on their farm in Middlefield, Conn., since 1741. “I thought, How do I count every earthworm? It’s going to take a while.”
So while farmers are counting worms in the dirt to scramble for the coveted “best” title, Whole Foods says that it’s just trying to be more honest. Or, here comes the buzzword, more transparent. Plus, the fancy food seller now has to compete with cheaper super-companies like Walmart, McDonald’s, General Mills, and Cargill, who are starting up similar transparency campaigns (*cough* marketing ploys) — like McDonald’s recent social media blitz — in order to appeal to curious consumers such as those meddling kids, millennials.
Whether the transparency campaign will make a difference for Whole Food’s sales is still up in the air, but farmers can rest assured that they will be certain to score, at the very least, “good.”