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In May of this year, a group of five Certified Organic fruit and vegetable farmers, whose combined careers represent 147 years’ experience in biological agriculture, approached the nation’s largest USDA National Organic Program (NOP) certifier, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), for help in defending our Certified Organic label’s value in a volatile marketplace.
This appeal was prompted by the nation’s iconic retailer of Certified Organic produce, Whole Foods Market (WFM), recent rollout of their proprietary fruit, vegetable and flower “Responsibly Grown” rating system in its 400 stores. The stated purpose of this initiative, examining and rating Conventional and Certified Organic WFM produce suppliers on parameters of soil health, pesticide use, food safety, labor practices, greenhouse gases, water conservation, waste reduction and recycling, is one that all farmers should welcome. In good faith, many Certified Organic farmers participated in Responsibly Grown’s detailed, time-consuming and expensive application process, hoping to receive distinction for sustainable practices beyond their organic production system’s heralded renunciation of toxic and synthetic inputs.
In the fall of 2014, when, amidst fanfare, “Responsibly Grown” was rolled out in stores across the nation, some of these same Certified Organic growers were shocked to learn that their farms had won “Good” or “Better” ratings, when a number of Conventional farms, who merely pledged to abstain from a short list of WFM prohibited pesticides, were being awarded “Best” distinctions. In response, the five farmers initiated, in early May, private communications with key WFM personnel, delivering to them, on 5-7-15, recommendations for changes to the Responsibly Grown program. On 5-15-15 the CCOF Board of Directors voted unanimous support for these farmers’ recommendations and directed CCOF’s executive director to initiate a dialogue with WFM executives on how such changes to Responsibly Grown can be realized.
Over an ensuing month before this dialogue was initiated, the simmering controversy was reported on by the New York Times, National Public Radio and assorted media outlets. The five farmers also presented a public letter to WFM Co-CEO John Mackey on 6-12-15 (insert link) outlining their objections to the high cost, excessive time demand and devaluation of pesticide use standards in Responsibly Grown’s rating outcomes. An amicable dialogue amongst WFM, CCOF and the five farmers commenced on 6-18-15 and continued over several weeks. Key, immediately-effective agreements were reached and a commitment to further collaborate on additional modifications to Responsibly Grown over the remainder of this year has been secured. As one result of these agreements, effective immediately, small-scale growers are free to postpone application to Responsibly Grown until Jan. 1, 2016. If a small-scale grower has already applied, continued efforts towards compliance may be suspended until Jan. 1, 2016. Furthermore, as of July 2015, produce from Certified Organic farms which have not completed or initiated Responsibly Grown applications will no longer be displayed as “Unrated” in WFM stores, but will henceforth be automatically awarded “Good” ratings.
WFM, CCOF and farmers have agreed to discuss, over the next several months, further restricting pesticides allowed in Responsibly Grown’s “Best” category to greatly reduce or eliminate the number of Conventional farms awarded this status. We will examine the overlaps between USDA-NOP law that governs the practice of Certified Organic farmers and similar requirements in WFM’s Responsibly Grown program, to determine how many additional points can be automatically awarded Certified Organic growers without unnecessary duplication of effort or documentation.
Consideration will be given to the replacement of comparatively judgmental “Good”, “Better”, “Best” designations by a simple numerical score, amongst other alternatives that more effectively recognize the signature achievement of Certified Organic in dramatically reducing pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, discussions will be held with a view to reducing paperwork and monetary costs to smaller-scale Certified-Organic growers entering the program (who already incur significant costs and paperwork to achieve NOP certification), and to establishing systematic means to verify all Responsibly Grown supplier claims.
WFM has expressed a willingness to seek international accreditation for their Responsibly Grown rating system in the near future.
Small-scale Certified Organic suppliers who were not effectively communicated with during WFM’s three-year Responsibly Grown planning process, which began in 2012, look forward to a series of grower meetings the grocer has promised to host this fall in major production regions to solicit farmer input.
Whole Foods Market, distinguished as the first national grocer to have its retail operations awarded Certified Organic status, enjoys supplier relationships with many of CCOF’s 2,000 organic farmer members, associations that often exceed a quarter-century or more. WFM is itself NOP certified by, and a recognized, valued member of our CCOF family. As fellow members of the greater organic community, we dedicate ourselves to passing on singular achievements in improving the quality and safety of the food Americans eat, however modest those might be, to a new generation of farmers who must accomplish much more in the next generation than we have in ours.