Whole Foods’ Half Attempt

By Niaz Dorry
NAMA‘s Coordinating Director
I’ve lived in Gloucester, Massachusetts for 18 years where Whole Foods operates one of its seafood plants. They have a dock here where boats land their fish and sell their catch to Whole Foods. Over the years I’ve heard a lot of compliments and complaints about their operations. Over the past few years, however, the complaints have outweighed the compliments. Of course, I have to take it all with a grain of salt and weigh them against what I know about the company. Some of that knowledge goes back to when I worked with Greenpeace on ocean issues. We had some challenges with Whole Foods back then, especially when they were debating whether to sell Patagonia Toothfish AKA Chilean Sea Bass, a fish wildly known to be caught primarily by fishing operations looking to buck international laws at the expense of the fish and fishermen.
Over the years, I’ve had to temper my reactions with reality, listening to fishermen who sell to Whole Foods and watching the company’s policies around seafood purchasing. But Whole Foods’ recent announcement that they would stop selling red-listed fish starting in 2013 might be a point of no return for me.
Let me be clear: I’m not in favor of overfishing. What I am not a fan of is feel good exercises that don’t go far enough and as a result will fall short if not undermine the goal of protecting the marine ecosystem.
I’ve felt that way about seafood lists and certifications very early in their development going back to the late 90s when they sprang up following the 1996 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (MSA). The newly amended MSA included some national standards and discretionary powers that were supposed to revolutionize fisheries management and how we measure and mitigate our impact on the ocean. In my opinion all good intentions, but poorly implemented because almost immediately fisheries managers, fishing industry organizations and environmental organizations alike began to cherry pick which parts of the act they wanted to prioritize. As a Greenpeace oceans campaigner who back then spent a lot of time working on the MSA’s reauthorization effort I was miffed by the selective application of the law. I felt like I was sold a bill of goods. I was under the impression that the law as a whole would bring us a sustainable future and seemed counter intuitive to pick parts of the MSA and pretend it’ll do the job. It’s been sixteen years since its passage and not a day goes by that we don’t hear about another species in trouble. I can’t help but think the selective approach of implementing the MSA had something to do with it. I consider it similar to being given a regimen to address a health problem and only following one or two pieces of the medical advice and being disappointed that it’s not working.
Seafood certification processes that began to brew after MSA’s passage also cherry picked the law. What troubled me a bit more was their focus particularly on the highly arbitrary formulas prone to political strong-arming, such as National Standard No. 1 that defines overfishing using a mathematic formula. This is the formula fisheries managers use to determine if a stock of fish is overfished. It sounds good in theory, but in practice it’s become a war of statisticians arguing over how many zeroes should be in the formula. The fish have become almost secondary to the mathematic equations. Reminds me a lot of the decimal pushing exercises around dioxin in our bodies where the argument has become about how many parts per million is allowed rather than how to stop creating dioxin to begin with by employing green technologies that provide good jobs that heal the earth and don’t poison us.

Sure… the seafood lists and certifications have raised awareness, but simply put they don’t go far enough and fail to address issues we know to be important not only to the ocean but also to the health of food system into which the marine animals we kill enter. You can read more about NAMA’s perspective on seafood certifications on our Green Seafood page. Our decision is based partially on our belief that the MSA needs to be implemented in its entirety. It’s also influenced by our knowledge of certifications of other things we use or eat every day including the organic label and the various labels that certify building products such as lumber, indoor air quality and energy efficiency.

Being a member of the National Family Farm Coalition and working with farming and food system organizations over the past few years have taught us a lot about what it takes to have good food that heals us and the planet. They are often from farmers who are growing organically and in many cases going even further than what the organic standards require when a farmer is filling out the application for getting the label. But many small and medium scale farmers don’t have the official organic label on their work because they can’t always afford to pay for the organic label’s process. As a result real food advocates are going beyond the organic label.
When it comes to building materials, we have learned that we need to look at a broad spectrum of values to make sure our materials have minimal impact on the earth and our health. We’ve learned that it’s not enough if the Forest Steward Council certifies the lumber or whether the window has the energy efficient label. This lesson I learned while working at the Healthy Building Network on their Pharos Project, a new way of evaluating building materials on multiple fronts not just one or two.
Ultimately, our knowledge of the shortcomings of current certification systems and Whole Foods operations in this town have led us to question their recent announcement. We simply know too much to be happy with a PR campaign. Until Whole Foods can show they are willing to go further, or deeper, their announcement is nothing more than greenwashing by yet another company that’s banking on our appropriately placed sensitivity to the needs of Mother Nature.