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 biodiversity that threaten our food supply — including loss of pollinators and soil life — 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.
Companies must immediately commit to ending the use of nitroguanidine neonicotinoids in their supply chains. These pesticides — already banned in the EU — can be a thousand times more toxic to bees than the infamous DDT and are the key chemical drivers of an “insect apocalypse” that threatens agriculture and our ecosystems.
Retailers must 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:
There is growing momentum around addressing pesticide use in the U.S. food retail sector, but action falls short of what is needed to protect bees and biodiversity from toxic pesticides. While Giant Eagle improved its score from a B to B+ this year, four companies lost points for failing to communicate meaningful progress toward meeting their pollinator health policies, Costco, Rite Aid, Albertsons and Target. Twelve major grocery retailers have created policies that address toxic pesticides in their supply chains in the past six years: Albertsons, Aldi, Costco, CVS, Dollar Tree, Giant Eagle, Kroger, Meijer, Rite Aid, Southeastern Grocers, Target, and Walmart. While Giant Eagle and Walmart have made timebound commitments, the other company policies do not include metrics or targets for implementation. They encourage food and beverage suppliers to reduce use of pesticides of concern, including neonicotinoids, organophosphates, and glyphosate, and to shift to least-toxic approaches including integrated pest management and regenerative agriculture. The policies also recognize organic agriculture as protective of pollinator health, and a number of them state the companies’ commitments to expand organic offerings. Despite this momentum, the scope and implementation of pesticide policies across the sector fall far short of what is needed to protect pollinators and other biodiversity.
Walmart and Giant Eagle have the leading pollinator health policies. Giant Eagle is the only major food retailer to set a measurable goal for pesticide reduction. The company will require produce growers to eliminate use of nitroguanidine neonicotinoids by 2025 and to avoid replacing them with other concerning chemicals. Giant Eagle is also requiring produce suppliers to adopt ecological farming methods known as integrated pest management (IPM) by 2025 as verified by a vetted list of third-party certifications or by submitting an IPM plan that meets key, stringent criteria set forth by Giant Eagle and which will be reviewed by an external entity. The policy also recognizes organic agriculture as protective of pollinator health. Walmart will require that 100% of global fresh produce and floral suppliers adopt IPM as verified by a vetted list of third-party certifications 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.
The majority of American consumers believe grocery stores should help protect pollinators. Independent polling from YouGov found that 83% of Americans believe it is important to eliminate pesticides that are harmful to pollinators from agriculture and 74% believe grocery stores should support efforts to protect pollinators. 81% want their food to be free of pesticide residues and 67% feel it is important that the grocery store they shop at sells organic food.
Major 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.
Major grocery retailers don’t know which pesticides are being used in their supply chains or how much is being used. Just five companies have taken first steps on pesticide tracking. Walmart encourages fresh produce suppliers to annually report use of nitroguanidine neonicotinoids and chlorpyrifos. 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. CVS conducted a pilot pesticide analysis in key own brand commodity chains. These types of initiatives must be scaled industry-wide.
Major grocery retailers must step up to support conventional growers to shift to the least-toxic approaches. Just five companies are taking steps to support conventional growers to shift to least-toxic approaches. Walmart is requiring all its global fresh produce and floral suppliers to adopt ecological farming methods called integrated pest management (IPM) verified by a third-party certification by 2025. Giant Eagle has made a similar commitment for produce suppliers. Meijer is partnering with academic researchers to provide educational opportunities for suppliers to learn about least-toxic pest management strategies. 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. Only Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Ahold Delhaize, Costco, Walmart, CVS and Meijer provided organic sales data. Trader Joe’s publicly reports that over 20% of overall grocery products sold are organic, and Ahold Delhaize publicly reports that between 3% to 5% of total grocery sales are organic. The following companies reported organic sales data to Friends of the Earth: Whole Foods reports that over 30% of overall sales are organic, Walmart reported organic sales for all grocery, Meijer and Costco reported organic sales for produce and CVS reported organic sales for own brand food and beverages. 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.
Companies must report organic and “natural” sales separately. Organic is a robust, federally regulated standard that prohibits over 900 pesticides otherwise allowed in agriculture 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 percentage 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, in our retailer scorecard we attempt to evaluate the extent to which companies have made organic products 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 percentage of overall sales. In 2020, we conducted a survey of 36 independent food retailers across the country 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, Wegmans, and Giant Co., a subsidiary of Ahold Delhaize, 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. Giant Co., a subsidiary of Ahold Delhaize, established a partnership with organic pioneer Rodale Institute to support farmers seeking to transition to organic farming and research connecting human health with soil health.
Twelve companies have pesticide commitments 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. Five companies have committed to end sales of Roundup and other glyphosate-based pesticides, Ahold Delhaize, Costco, CVS, Dollar Tree, and Giant Eagle. Five are taking action on neonicotinoid products, Costco, CVS, Dollar Tree, and Giant Eagle no longer sell neonic products and Walmart has eliminated almost all garden products containing neonics. Whole Foods and Walgreens report that they never sold garden products containing glyphosate or neonics. In addition, four stores have committed to eliminate the sourcing of plants and/or flowers that have been treated with neonicotinoids, Dollar Tree, Kroger, Giant Eagle and BJ’s Wholesale Club, and five have issued statements encouraging live plant and/or flower suppliers to phase out neonicotinoids, Aldi, Costco, Meijer, Southeastern Grocers, and Target.
It is time for grocery retailers to implement policies that reflect the interrelated biodiversity and climate crises we’re facing. Pollinators are a cornerstone to a dependable food supply, contributing approximately $34 billion to the U.S. economy and up to $577 billion to the global economy annually. However, forty percent of insect pollinators, like bees and butterflies, face extinction, and U.S. beekeepers continue to experience record losses of honeybee colonies. To meaningfully address the threat that pesticides pose to pollinators, grocery stores 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 use of pollinator-toxic pesticides by shifting to ecological farming methods. When grocery retailers commit to truly shift their supply chains away from pesticide-intensive agriculture toward organic and other science-based ecological farming systems, they will not only protect pollinators and other biodiversity, they will reduce human exposure to toxic pesticides, reduce their climate impact and help create vital climate solutions.
*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, 2021, 502 of Amazons’ 538 brick-and-mortar grocery locations are Whole Foods stores. The remainder are Amazon Go and Amazon Fresh stores.