Our Bee-Friendly Retailer Scorecard found that despite important momentum in the sector, major grocery retailers have a long way to go to protect pollinators, people and the planet from toxic pesticides.
To reverse devastating declines in pollinator populations, grocery retailers must support the expansion of organic farming in the U.S. and beyond. At the same time, they must support the non-organic farmers they source from to eliminate toxic pesticides by shifting to ecological farming methods, which reduce the need for pesticides in the first place. Retailers can also step up to support public policies that would rapidly shift our food system away from toxic pesticides and toward healthy, just and sustainable practices.
We found that:
Walmart has the leading pollinator health policy. Walmart released a pollinator health policy in April 2021 requiring that 100% of global fresh produce and floral suppliers adopt ecological farming methods called integrated pest management (IPM), as verified by a vetted list of third-party certifiers, by 2025. The policy also encourages produce suppliers to phase out pollinator-toxic pesticides — nitroguanidine neonicotinoids and chlorpyrifos — and to avoid replacing them with a list of other concerning chemicals, and to annually report pesticide application and biodiversity management. In addition, the policy sets goals around creating and restoring pollinator habitat.
Walmart, Giant Eagle, Albertsons, Aldi U.S., and Rite Aid established new pollinator health policies this year, making seven major grocery retailers taking steps to address toxic pesticides in their food supply chains. With these announcements, the four largest grocery retailers in the U.S. — Walmart, Kroger, Costco and Albertsons — have pollinator health policies, along with three more of the top 25 — Giant Eagle, Aldi U.S. and Rite Aid. This shows important momentum amongst grocery retailers to protect bees and other beneficial insects that their food supply chains depend on. These policies encourage food and beverage suppliers to reduce use of pesticides of concern and to shift to least-toxic approaches. The policies also state that the companies are committed to expanding organic offerings. Whole Foods, which used to have the industry-leading policy on pesticide reduction as part of its discontinued Responsibly Grown program, no longer has a pollinator health policy.*
Top grocery retailers are failing to set measurable goals to reduce toxic pesticide use in their food supply chains. Only Giant Eagle has set a measurable goal to reduce use of toxic pesticides. To save bees and other beneficial insects, companies must make measurable commitments to phase out pollinator-toxic pesticides immediately.
Top grocery retailers don’t know which pesticides are being used in their supply chains or how much is being used. In the U.S., only the state of California tracks and reports on agricultural pesticide use. This means that grocery stores need to first survey their suppliers in order to understand how to set measurable goals for pesticide reduction. Just four companies have taken first steps on this criteria. Walmart encourages fresh produce suppliers to annually report pesticide application and biodiversity management. Costco and Whole Foods have pilot-level pesticide tracking programs through their participation in the Equitable Food Initiative. Aldi requires suppliers of key commodities to disclose whether they use chlorpyrifos and neonicotinoids. These types of initiatives must be scaled industry wide.
Top grocery retailers must step up to support conventional growers to shift to the least-toxic approaches. Walmart has set an industry leading standard by requiring all of its global fresh produce and floral suppliers to adopt ecological farming methods called integrated pest management (IPM) practices verified by a third-party certification by 2025. Costco and Whole Foods report having pilot-level programs in place to provide training and other meaningful support to non-organic growers to shift to least-toxic approaches through the Equitable Food Initiative.
Companies must disclose organic sales data and include organic sales in formal sustainability goals. Most companies are not disclosing their organic sales data, which makes it difficult to assess their growth and competitive advantage in this marketplace.
- Ahold Delhaize, Albertsons, Costco, CVS, Kroger and Target publicly reported expanding organic offerings within the past three years.
- Only Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Ahold Delhaize publicly provide organic sales data. Whole Foods reports that over 30% of overall sales are organic, Trader Joe’s reports that over 20% of overall products sold are organic, and Ahold Delhaize reports that 3% of total food sales are organic.
- Only Ahold Delhaize and Aldi include organic sales in company key performance indicators or formal sustainability criteria. None of the companies we evaluated include pesticide reduction in formal sustainability criteria.
- Some companies report organic and “natural” sales together, significantly confounding the data. Organic is a robust, federally regulated standard whereas “natural” is not a regulated label claim, has no clear definition, and has no meaning in relation to use of pesticides or other synthetic inputs in farming. We recommend that companies track and report organic and “natural” sales separately to provide more transparency around organic sales data.
Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s are leading major grocery retailers on organic as a percent of overall grocery sales. It is difficult to compare organic sales between retailers. While some of the largest retailers can claim the highest total organic sales – for example, as of 2015, Costco reportedly surpassed Whole Foods as the largest organic grocer by reaching $4 billion in annual sales, and Albertsons’ house brand O Organics hit $1 billion in sales in 2018 — in our retailer scorecard we attempted to evaluate the extent to which companies have made organic central to their business model by assessing organic as a percent of overall products or sales.
Independent grocery stores far surpass the largest U.S. food retailers on organic as a percent of overall sales. In addition to our evaluation of 25 of the largest U.S. grocery retailers, we conducted a survey of 36 independent food retailers across the country in order to provide insight on companies that have made organic central to their values and business. Ninety four percent of these retailers (34 of 36) report exceeding the benchmark that Friends of the Earth has challenged top grocery retailers to meet: increasing certified organic offerings to 15% of total sales or products. Sixty-four percent (23 of 36) report that over 50% of their total sales are organic. These retailers are leading the way on offering consumers bee-friendly food and are helping to reduce the use of toxic pesticides on farms in the U.S. and beyond.
Companies must support the expansion of organic agriculture in the U.S. This is critical, as U.S. farmers are currently being left behind as demand for organic food far outstrips supply. Only Whole Foods, Costco and Wegmans report taking measures to expand U.S. production of organic food. Whole Foods reports the most extensive set of practices supporting U.S. organic growers, including committing to price floors for farmers in transition to organic, providing financial support for organic and family-scale farmers via loans and investing resources in educating suppliers about organic practices and how to transition. Whole Foods was also the only company to report that they advocate for federal policies that support strong organic standards and increased funding for organic research. Costco reports working with U.S. farmers and ranchers to transition land to organic production. Wegmans operates its own research-oriented organic farm to educate farmers about best practices.
Nine companies have pesticide policies in their home and garden supply chains. Agriculture accounts for the vast majority of pesticide use, however, companies are also taking important steps to protect the health of pollinators and people in their home and garden supply chains. Three companies have committed to end sales of Roundup and other glyphosate-based pesticides, Costco, Ahold Delhaize and CVS. Two are taking action on neonicotinoids, Costco no longer sells neonic products in its U.S. locations and Walmart has eliminated almost all garden products containing neonics. Whole Foods reports that it has never sold garden products containing glyphosate or neonics. In addition, six stores have committed to greatly reduce or eliminate the sourcing of plants and/or flowers that have been treated with neonicotinoids, Costco, Walmart, Kroger, Aldi, Giant Eagle and BJ’s Wholesale Club.
It is time for grocery retailers to implement policies that reflect the interrelated biodiversity and climate crises we’re facing. When grocery retailers commit to truly shift their supply chains away from pesticide-intensive agriculture to organic and other science-based ecological farming systems, they will not only protect pollinators and other biodiversity, they will reduce their climate impact and help create vital climate solutions. Manufacturing pesticides is an energy-intensive process, it has been estimated to account for approximately 10% of the total energy used for growing crops. Therefore, grocery retailers should count pesticide reduction as an important part of their energy and greenhouse gas reduction goals. Building healthy soils that can serve as carbon sinks also requires reducing pesticide use, as pesticides harm the soil organisms that are central to the process of soil carbon sequestration. Building healthy soils also helps mitigate the effects of climate change on farmers since healthy soils conserve water and significantly increase farmers’ resilience in the face of climate-related droughts and floods.
*Although Amazon acquired Whole Foods in 2017, we graded these companies separately given that Whole Foods still maintains distinct policies and a substantially different business model. As of September, 2020, 508 of Amazons’ 533 brick-and-mortar grocery locations are Whole Foods stores. The remainder are Amazon Go stores.