I don’t shop at Whole Foods much, as I prefer to spend as many of my food dollars with local businesses and farms as possible. As for the big box natural food grocers, I far prefer Earth Fare.
I do applaud Whole Foods’ efforts to showcase locally produced items, however, which is why I do stop in to pick up produce that might be available on a seasonal basis.
I’ve always found it confusing to shop for produce at Whole Foods, as conventional and organic selections are frequently side by side. This is not necessarily a problem all the time, as I prefer local, in-the-soil grown, conventional items to organic hydroponic ones as they taste better (an indication of superior nutrition) and they last longer in the produce bin. Several times, though, I’ve intended to buy organic and selected as such only to have one of the kids say, “Mom, that’s not organic” to alert me that I’ve made a mistake.
The labels for Whole Foods produce have now gotten even more puzzling, and adept shoppers need to be on their toes so that they don’t inadvertently buy an unwanted item.
Whole Foods’ new ratings program called Responsibly Grown identifies produce which is deemed to be “best”, “better” or simply “good”.
You would think that an organically grown product would automatically get a designation above a conventionally grown one, right?
Conventional Produce Can Be Ranked Higher Than Organic at Whole Foods
Matt Rogers, associate global produce coordinator for Whole Foods, said that the reason for the new produce labeling is because the organic label does not cover sustainability issues like water, waste, energy, and farmworker welfare. This means that at Whole Foods, conventionally grown produce from another country can earn a better ranking than organic and locally grown.
According to the New York Times, a Whole Foods in Capitola, California had given a “best” rating to a conventional variety of asparagus from Mexico that retailed for $4.99 a pound. On a nearby display, locally grown, organic asparagus selling for $7.99 a pound was only labeled “good.” Astounding.
How could a conventional farm in Mexico earn a better ranking for its produce than a local, organic producer?
The reason is the Whole Foods Responsibly Grown program which gives high priority to sustainability issues that are subjective and likely not as important to many consumers as the black and white issue of avoiding pesticides. These include: establishing a garbage recycling program, relying more on alternative energy sources, choosing to eliminate certain pesticides from its growing practices, and setting aside a portion of the farm as conservation.
Organic farmers think that the Whole Foods produce rating system is showing just how much competition the healthfood giant is facing for organic from the likes of Costco, Walmart, and now even Kroger.
Jeff Larkey, a California organic farmer, said that Whole Foods used to buy upwards of 50% of the organic produce in the United States. Now, they are competing with supermarkets, which could be one reason for the attempts to make conventionally grown produce more appealing to consumers.
Whole Foods denies this. Spokesman Matt Rogers says the new produce rating standards raise the bar for conventional farmers and inch them toward the organic label by awarding points for eliminating some pesticides, reducing water waste, and increasing conservation efforts.
Whatever the reason, Whole Foods shoppers now have yet another labeling maze to navigate.
As for me, I will stick with organic, preferably locally grown no matter what the Whole Foods rating says, unless the produce is obviously hydroponic, in which case I will seek grown in the dirt alternatives, again preferably organic!
Sources and More Information
Organic Farmers Object to Whole Foods Rating System
Whole Foods: The Walmart of Healthfood
The Hydroponic Invasion of USDA Organic
Organic Hydroponic Produce? Not for Me
4 Steps to Keep Monsanto OUT of Your Garden!
Heirloom vs Hybrid Produce
Is Organic Really Any Better?
Jean | DelightfulRepast.com
Sarah, I rarely shop at Whole Foods because the nearest one is in the next town. I do most of my non-farmers-market shopping at a privately owned local natural foods store, and even there I have to keep my eyes open. I don’t understand why they, or Whole Foods, carry imported produce. They will have imported “whatever” at the very time the local version of it is readily available. I don’t get it.
Yes, this is frustrating! You really do have to be on your toes when you shop .. no matter where it is.
once i found some organic heirloom apples (gravenstein i think).
i asked the owner why i can’t find them in WF, she said WF asked for too much $ & they would have so little left
so there you go
Let us not confuse “Marketing” with recognition of Quality.
What your “organic” grower won’t tell you is there are over 280 pesticides that he is allowed to use. Sure, many are derived from “natural” sources, but they are toxic and persistent nonetheless. What your “organic” grower contends is that their certified “organic” status should outweigh everything. This attitude is suspect given that many huge food manufacturers are seizing the marketing opportunity and are jumping in and tweaking their food to be “organic” but not necessarily healthy. What your “organic” farmer contends is that conventional farmers can not be good stewards of the land, cannot produce healthy food, and are therefore evil.
Nothing could be further from the truth. No private farmer wants to ruin his soil or his environment. The advances in sustainable agriculture in the last 50 years have been great, though not all of them have been in the best interests of the consumer. To concentrate on the questionable advances while ignoring the positive advances is short-sighted and unbalanced. Good, healthy food can be produced economically by non-organic methods and the Whole Foods rating system shows that. What we have to be skeptical of is “organic” growers who want preferred status that allows them to charge exorbitant prices for common foods grown with allowed pesticides, while demonizing farmers that grow crops responsibly, but not organically.
This organic frenzy is nothing but a marketing ploy to artificially increase the price of common foods.
Your comment about avoiding “organic hydroponic” produce is misstated. It’s very rare for a hydroponic farm to be organic. I believe there are only 1 or 2 certified organic hydroponic farms in the country. And even as certified organic, there are still major problems with hydroponics. In general, hydroponic = conventionally grown in a greenhouse (aka hothouse).
Hydroponic produce often tastes quite good and looks beautiful. It generally lasts longer than produce grown in soil. And the process uses less water than traditional farming.
Hydroponics may or may not be equally or more nutritious- depending on the nutrient solution. But it is mostly sterile, whereas soil grown produce is covered in probiotics.
Hydroponics may or may not be “spray-free”, as in no pesticides. I find this hard to believe even when advertised because hydroponics is prone to pests.
There is another type of hydroponics called AQUAPONICS. We need to be very careful to understand the difference between produce grown with aquaponics vs hydroponics. Aquaponics is basically the organic version of hydroponics. Instead of using a nutrient solution, aquaponics is a closed loop system that combines fish farming and plant farming. The fish waste provides nutrients to the plants and the plants clean the water for the fish.
Aquaponics mimics nature and embraces the full microbiome, whereas hydroponics is sterile. Since any chemicals would kill the fish, you can trust that produce grown with aquaponics is completely pure. So it’s even better than organic farming, where you really don’t know if the farmer is using “organic” fertilizers and pesticides that are potentially harmful to your health.
Aquaponically grown produce tastes amazing and has been proven in 2 peer-reviewed studies to be more nutritious than traditionally farmed food. Since it uses 99% less water and has zero pollution into the watershed, I would choose aquaponically grown produce ahead of produce from a traditional local organic farm.
Anyhow, in general I enjoy your posts and agree with your perspective, but this seems like a topic that you may not have a full understanding of.
Thanks for your perspective. The article on hydroponics linked to above does talk about the difference between hydroponic and aquaponic and that it is very important not to confuse the two 🙂
The new system isn’t confusing at all. I completely ignore it. Instead, I just look at the PLU sticker. It it starts with a “9”, it’s organic and I buy it.
Good suggestion! Just ignore it 🙂 Simple and effective. That’s what I do too, but it took me an entire article to explain why 🙂
Before damning hydroponic one must totally research that method of growing and why. Agreed, good earth matters. However, in the case of nutritional products sometimes one must introduce minerals to a hydroponic bath and then harvest the leaves so that the body can use them the way God intended us to. We are not designed to properly utilize ground up shells, iron, rocks, petroleum – whatever else. I’m just saying that hydroponic is not ALL bad.
I was wondering if you would mind sharing where you do shop locally. I live in Tampa as well and try to shop locally but not all local is organic. There are a few local health food stores that I shop, but you are a wealth of resources and probably know of local farms. Take care
I don’t post the names/places of the farms I choose to do business with online in a publicly available venue like a blog in order to protect their privacy.