CCOF, Whole Foods Market, and Organic Growers Collaborate on Changes to Rating System

Today CCOF and Whole Foods Market (WFM) jointly announced new changes to WFM’s Responsibly Grown rating program and its enrollment process for certified organic flower and produce farmers. These changes include allowing current organic vendors to suspend enrollment efforts until the end of this year, immediately relieving pressure for many small and medium sized producers. WFM also announced its intention to positively alter both the scoring and presentation of certified organic products, while committing to expanded dialogue about the program with vendors and other stakeholders.
CCOF’s leadership facilitated several weeks of exchange between a group of long-time, prominent organic producers and WFM’s management. I also joined their dialogue at the request of both the original grower-writers and CCOF staff. These meetings followed national media coverage of the growers’ letter to WFM objecting to some aspects of the Responsibly Grown program (although the first meeting had already been set prior to the media stories). CCOF’s Board of Directors voiced its support for the letter—originally signed by five independent growers—and encouraged CCOF’s Executive Director/CEO Cathy Calfo to facilitate a good faith but urgent discussion aimed at improving the program.
In the joint announcement today, both organizations affirmed WFM’s support for recognizing the “leading achievements of organic agriculture” in various dimensions. They also called for unity on “the importance of addressing relevant issues in agriculture that affect human health and the environment.” Evaluating all suppliers on aspects of those issues (along with aspects of labor fairness) and incentivizing their improvement is the stated purpose of the Responsibly Grown program.
The farmers who went on record with the letter objected to how the rating system deals with organic products: the scoring is too low, the presentation is confusing, and the Responsibly Grown “on-boarding” process is too rushed and unfair to small operators. WFM has responded to each of those areas, with some changes effective immediately and others that will evolve over the rest of this year and beyond. Grower meetings and perhaps other forums are expected to be part of the continuing process.
Today’s news demonstrates the commitments of all involved to the organic community, and the ability to collaborate on solutions when addressing tensions of change. This episode also provides a positive example for how to process other such issues with good heart and good (business) sense, without descending into internal warfare. “Win-win” is a cliché phrase, but we desperately need to find such solutions. All participants in the quest for safer, healthier, smaller, fairer agriculture need to be able to compromise with each other to advance our overall interests and values together. 
The success and achievements of certified organic agriculture (imperfect and still improving as they may be) are the reason that there can even be debate about how to embody and reward all these positive values within a quite ruthless market system. Organic is not passé. It is not just the “floor” of values-based food marketing. It is the foundation, the bone marrow, the humus-building loam of environmental and social sustainability in the agricultural economy.
It is no stretch to say that Whole Foods Market is historically essential to the viability of thousands of organic farms all over the world, past, present, and future—including my own. They can rightly claim that history in asking for the benefit of the doubt in getting Responsibly Grown right. They can and should be held accountable to that history in how they proceed from here. There’s a lot that we all need to get better at, and today Whole Foods, CCOF, and a few courageous grizzled growers showed us some hope for doing so.
This article was written by Mark Lipson.
Mark is a CCOF-certified organic producer (Molino Creek Farming Collective), a former CCOF staff member, former Policy Director for the Organic Farming Research Foundation and recently served as the USDA Organic Agriculture Policy Advisor in Washington, DC. Now he’s back at Molino Creek Farm, hoping for a good dry-farmed tomato crop this fall. Mark is also currently a Research Associate with the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Farming Systems at University of California Santa Cruz.