A More Wholistic Answer To Neonics Needed

Whole Foods Market wasted no time taking its “Responsibly Grown” initiative directly to the well-educated, affluent demographic that frequents its stores. Just days after announcing a new tiered system labeling fresh produce and flowers as “good,” “better” or “best,” based on “growing practices that impact human health and the environment,” more than 1.3 million New York Times Magazine subscribers opened their October 26 editions to a two-page ad touting the program.

The chain is quite specific on the seven criteria it says it will use to assess its grower suppliers: pest management; farm worker welfare; water conservation and protection; soil health; ecosystems and biodiversity; waste reduction; and air, energy and climate. And it minces no words on pest management: Responsibly Grown will prohibit several organophosphate insecticides currently registered for use on ornamentals (e.g., acephate and dimethoate), and growers aspiring to receive a “best” rating from Whole Foods are prohibited from using four of the most common neonicotinoids currently allowed in the U.S. (e.g., clothianidin and dinotefuran).

What is our take on Responsibly Grown here at Greenhouse Grower magazine? We do heartily support the sustainability effort in general. Consumers clearly are moving in the direction of fresh produce and flowers produced with the least possible impact on human well-being and the environment. Whole Foods’ portrayal of growers and their fight against pests (WholeFoodsMarket.com/Responsibly-Grown) is sympathetic, correctly noting that “growing food is a little tougher than eating it.”

And we’re excited by and confident in the promise of technology, especially in the greenhouse, to create softer alternatives to traditional pesticides. The biocontrol business alone is robust with product development and is booming in value. (Growers in the West may want to attend Meister Media Worldwide’s Biocontrols 2015 Tradeshow & Conference, March 3-5, 2015 in Fresno, Calif., BiocontrolsConference.com)

However, asking growers to drop neonics suddenly and completely simply is not reasonable. We have seen no evidence yet that neonics pose an environmental problem when used correctly. And as grower Gary Mangum noted on these pages in September, resistance may develop to the remaining treatment options, and growers may have to resort to multiple applications of broader-spectrum, often harsher chemicals. This is probably not the outcome Whole Foods was looking for.

But if Whole Foods is dead set against neonics, we call for a more gradual, flighted approach to their removal that allows for time, money and research into finding a viable alternative — one that may well involve and necessitate a blend of biologicals and traditional chemicals.

Whether Whole Foods heeds our call, alternatives to neonics could well be down the road. Meanwhile, growers selling to the chain who find they cannot do without this effective class of insecticides may have to settle for less than a “best” rating. It’s not ideal, but it may be the short-term price of real, true, longer-term progress.

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