Whole Foods Would Look a Lot Different If It Were Science-Based

Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Whole Foods used to be my idea of grocery heaven. Once upon a time, I shopped at the California Street location in San Francisco — it was light and airy with produce for miles. I knew the cheesemonger. I had philosophical conversations with the butcher. I stared longingly at the Le Creuset bakeware. The soap aisle smelled like lavender. Heaven.

But eventually, I fell out of love. Or, to be more specific, I changed my mind about organic food after reading the research: It turns out organic isn’t more nutritious or even necessarily better for the planet. So I pretty much stopped shopping at Whole Foods altogether.

I’m not the only one. Whole Foods may have once revolutionized the organic-food industry, but it’s no longer the only game in town. These days, many consumers are now buying their organic groceries at less expensive stores, including Costco and Walmart. Whole Foods’ sales are on the decline, driving many observers and even their own investors to suggest that in order to survive, the chain has to make a drastic change.

Well. I have a suggestion as to what that change might be. It’s pretty drastic, but, hear me out, Whole Foods. This could be good for both of us. Here it is: Why not revolutionize grocery shopping all over again? Only this time, the revolution should be powered by science and agronomy, and not misleading marketing.

Here’s my first problem. Labels like “organic” and “conventional” are too broad, and too black and white, to really be all that helpful. A more specific, more informative approach could fix this: If Whole Foods listed all of the pesticides used on every fruit and vegetable, whether natural or synthetic, consumers might begin to understand that both conventional and organic produce are grown with pesticides, and what matters more is the toxicity of the pesticide used. Copper sulfate, for example, a pesticide allowed in organic produce in the U.S., is more toxic than some conventional pesticides. Chlorpyrifos, an insecticide used in conventional agriculture, is more toxic than glyphosate, the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. It’s worth noting that Whole Foods took a step in this direction once before with its Responsibly Grown program, which recognized that conventional produce can be more sustainable than organic, but organic farmers loudly objected and the company eventually undercut those standards. It’s time to bring them back.

This new science-based labeling system should also make it crystal clear that trace pesticide residues aren’t dangerous for consumers — as long as the residues measure below the tolerance levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (and they do, year after year), then they aren’t a cause for concern. If there is a concern about a pesticide’s toxicity, it’s the health risk to farm workers and their families, and that’s something to consider before buying those perfect-looking strawberries.

We’ll also want to know the pesticide’s environmental impact, like how it affects the bees or the surrounding water supply. Many people believe pesticides alone are killing off the country’s bee population, but if you dig a little deeper, you discover that pesticides aren’t actually the biggest culprit. Iida Ruishalme, a biologist who writes the blog Thoughtscapism, has published several in-depth posts examining the different hazards to bee health. She says even though “neonicotinoid [pesticides] steal most of the thunder,” there are graver threats to be concerned with: “The Varroa mite, disease, habitat loss, and invasive species (such as the European honey bee itself) play a far greater role.”

But pesticides are only one piece of the broader sustainability puzzle. Consumers should also be able to know whether the farmer who grew their produce uses practices like cover-cropping and conservation tillage, two things that improve soil health and mitigate the impact of climate change by increasing the sequestration of carbon in the soil. Both organic and conventional farmers can and do incorporate these methods.

Antibiotics are another area where more precise language would be helpful. If Whole Foods moved beyond labels like “antibiotic free” and provided more specific information about how their conventional farmers use antibiotics, it could encourage more strategic and sparing use of these drugs. And when it comes to organic meat, let consumers know which organic farmers responsibly treat their sick animals with antibiotics and remove them from the herd, and discourage the use of unproven and ineffective homeopathic remedies.

And while we’re at it, reward the farmers who pay their farm workers a decent wage and ensure good working conditions. It’s a standard that would at least achieve something real and tangible — unlike the non-GMO food label that’s so ubiquitous in Whole Foods stores. The Non-GMO Project’s butterfly seal of sanctity, slapped on products throughout the store, is a symbol of the issues that drove me away from Whole Foods in the first place: The Non-GMO project is (a) misleading, and (b) not backed by science. Products like non-GMO tomatoes are really just a trick on the consumer because all tomatoes fit that description; there are no genetically modified tomatoes currently on the market. And despite the fear over genetically modified foods, there has never been a proven case of illness attributed to a GMO. The overwhelming, well-documented scientific consensus is that these foods are safe (or, to be precise, just as safe as other types of food).

But what people really need to understand — and what Whole Foods has the power to show them — is that there really is no such thing as a GMO. It’s a breeding method, not an ingredient. Rather than label something non-GMO, label each modified crop by its particular enhancement, so that consumers can evaluate each genetically modified food by its own merits. Customers could choose from disease-resistant papaya, inoculated against the papaya ringspot virus, or food made with Bt corn, modified to include the same toxin that other farmers have to apply in a separate pesticide application, often in larger amounts. Crops modified to be “Roundup Ready,” like soy and canola, allow farmers to apply the herbicide Roundup without affecting the actual crop. Let’s also include foods like seedless watermelon and ruby-red grapefruit — these fruits may have been created by non-GMO breeding methods, but they’re genetically modified all the same.

True, all of this may sound like a lot of information. But food labels are already jam-packed with information these days — it’s just that most of that info is vague and unhelpful (what does “natural” really mean, anyway?). If Whole Foods could get consumers to focus on agricultural measures that matter, I just might fall in love with the store all over again. So, let’s do this, Whole Foods. Tell the cheesemonger I’m on my way.

A Science-Based Whole Foods Would Look a Lot Different