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Kroger, Whole Foods adopt buying policies that protect bees

Big grocery chains are embracing procurement guidelines that prohibit the use of nitroguanidine neonicotinoids, which are toxic to bees.

Bee on almond blossom

Bee collecting honey on an almond blossom. Image via Shutterstock/Ivanb.photo

Kroger and Whole Foods are the latest grocery chains to require suppliers to use pest control measures that don’t harm bees, butterflies and other pollinators.

The Whole Foods policy, which also applies to companies that sell to its floral department, is set to take effect by 2025. It seeks to reduce chemical pesticide use and to prohibit nitroguanidine neonicotinoids — substances often applied to seedlings to encourage growth but particularly toxic to bees.

The Kroger plan will be enforced by 2028 or 2030, depending on the size of the grower, with larger ones expected to meet the goal earlier. Suppliers must become certified under one of about a dozen standards, such as Bee Better, Fair Trade grower frameworks or one of the organic agricultural standards recognized globally.

"Every single piece of fruit we grow requires pollination," said Mark Zirkle, president of Rainier Fruit, a Whole Foods supplier that maintains 125 acres of pollinator habitat and 325 orchard acres certified to the Bee Better standard. "We wouldn’t have a crop without honeybees, so pollinator health is of utmost importance to us as farmers."

Practical protection

A perfect storm of conditions poses a threat to honeybee colonies, including exposure to pesticides, which weakens their immune systems, and a heightened focus by farms on just one crop, which affects bees' diets. Kroger and Whole Foods aren’t the first grocers to announce pollinator protections — Walmart announced a similar mandate in April 2022. Albertson’s references pollinators and "pesticides of concern" in its 2022 supplier guidelines, but stops short of requiring specific measures.

The policies demonstrate rising corporate interest in conserving nature and addressing biodiversity decline, said David Wei, managing director of climate and nature for consultancy BSR. "I think of it as a leading indicator. It’s a good place for a grocer to focus," Wei said.

The measures are also practical from a business standpoint. Honeybees, as just one example, are necessary for the propagation of more than 100 U.S. plants, including almonds, fruits, berries, melons and squash, according to research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Commercial beekeepers in the U.S. generated $620 million in revenue in 2022, a decrease of about $100 million from 2021. Another oft-cited USDA statistic: One out of every three bites of food relies on some sort of pollinator.

IMP hierarchy

A new approach to integrated pest management

The success of the new policies will hinge on how actively the grocery chains work with suppliers to help them make the transition, by providing education and the capital needed to make these changes, said Dave Haynes, managing director for advisory firm Pollination. "Retailers play a vital role in terms of being able to set policy … It’s not a single player that can dictate this," he said.

The Kroger, Whole Foods and Walmart programs all require growers to embrace "integrated pest management" (IPM). It’s a system that combines biological, physical, chemical and cultural measures for getting rid of insects that damage crops.

"We recognize growers’ need for robust pest management," said Ann Marie, executive leader for quality standards at Whole Foods. "To produce healthy crops, growers use a variety of strategies and techniques to managing evolving pest and disease pressures. Pesticides are one of many such strategies — along with good sanitation, prevention and physical or cultural measures."

Examples of approaches that downplay pesticides include:

  • Planting wildflowers, flowering herbs or hedgerows alongside cropped fields.
  • Using beneficial insects such as ladybugs, soldier beetles or praying mantises.
  • More proactive maintenance of diseased plants.

IPM still allows for chemical pest control, but only as a last resort. What’s new is that farms are increasingly being directed by groceries to prioritize pollinator health alongside other factors, such as crop yields. Walmart, for example, encourages produce suppliers to protect, restore or establish pollinator habitats on at least 3 percent of the land they own, manage or invest in by 2025. Whole Foods has supported a grant program since 2014 to place beehives in schools and with nonprofits to raise awareness of the role of pollination.

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