Raising the Bar: Regenerative Organic Certification

The Path to Regenerative
The path to regenerative organic agriculture started over seven decades ago. In 1942, J.I. Rodale wrote a few simple words on a black board: “HEALTHY SOIL=HEALTHY FOOD=HEALTHY PEOPLE.” In so doing, he set us on a path that links our personal health to the health of the soil, dictating that the way we farm does make a difference in human health and the health of the planet.

In the later 20th century, as the organic community tried to create interstate and international trade in organic food and fiber materials, it became clear that a national standard was needed. Such a standard could unify the many voices in the organic community; help grow the numbers of organic farms and products; and communicate to consumers through a forward-facing USDA logo representing the certification process and the standards themselves.

The first step in getting a USDA standard created was passing the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, which gave the Department of Agriculture the authority to create regulations and standards for the production, processing and handling of food and fiber products. The National Organic Standards Board was also created to interact with and advise the USDA. It took 12 years of shared work between the organic community and the USDA before the release of the first official USDA Organic standard in 2002.

The Case for a New Standard
It’s been more than 15 years now since the first national standards were established. Those rules assure consumers that their purchases are produced without the use of harmful chemicals. While the current organic certification is a necessary and important benchmark for both farmers and shoppers, the original standards haven’t changed much in the decade-plus since their inception. Additionally, those standards don’t address a number of issues important to today‘s consumers, including soil degradation, labor injustice, animal welfare and an increasingly unsteady climate. It’s time to go further. It’s time to raise the bar and encompass the full spectrum of values important to organic farmers, customers and brands.

In the 1970s and 80s, the food and fiber industry got busy marketing the word “sustainable.” At the same time, Robert Rodale (who shunned the word sustainable for several reasons) chose a different word, “regenerative,” to better describe how to improve agricultural production. To sustain something means you’re happy with it the way it is. There is no need to improve it, only to maintain the status quo. Regeneration, on the other hand, implies improvement.

The new Regenerative Organic Standard recognizes producers that farm organically and adhere to the principles of improving the resources they use while they use them. This is particularly important when applied to soil health. If we focus our attention as farmers/producers on soil health instead of yield exclusively, then we will, by default, sequester more carbon, enhance the biodiversity of the soil, improve water management, and improve the resiliency of the entire system.

In recent years, many organizations have begun to use the word regenerative. Many of these organizations have chosen a path that does not connect the words organic and regenerative. Instead, they tend to use the word in whatever way is easiest for them to market, cherry picking carbon sequestration, for example. The position of Rodale Institute and many supporting brands is that you cannot be regenerative unless you are first organic. While sustainable is focused on minimizing the negative impacts of agricultural activities, regenerative organic is focused on maximizing the positive impacts of agricultural activities based on organic principles.

The existing USDA organic standard commands a powerful place in the market, but it also contains gaps on issues that matter to consumers, namely animal welfare, soil health, and worker fairness. The standard is not overly dynamic or easy to change by design. It has proven difficult to incorporate additional language or regulation around these key issues and others that consumers have identified as important.

It’s time to address soil health, animal welfare, and farm worker fairness while embodying the concept of continuous improvement. All these issues were included in original concepts of organic and J.I. Rodale’s idea that healthy soil leads to healthy people. They were lost in the translation to a certifiable USDA standard.

To address these issues in a meaningful way, we need to step outside the confines of the regulatory agency and build additional language around the USDA organic standard. The goal of Regenerative Organic Certification is not to diminish the decades of work that went into the creation and marketing of the powerful word organic, but to build on the legacy of both the concepts and regulations of organic. In order to do that, Rodale Institute has worked in partnership with others to create the Regenerative Organic standard and Certification.

Regenerative Organic Certification’s Three Pillars

Introducing Regenerative Organic Certification

Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) is a new, holistic agriculture certification program encompassing robust, high-bar standards for ensuring soil health and ecological land management, pasture-based animal welfare, and fairness for farmers and workers. The standard and certification applies to farmers, processors and brands. Eligible applicants must already be USDA certified organic.

ROC was created to model an ecological and ethical system for agricultural production that addresses the problems of factory farming, climate change, and economic injustice locally and globally. ROC, which requires farmers to also hold USDA NOP certification (or the international equivalent), utilizes the standards that have helped organic grow to the movement it is today—then takes them a step further.

ROC was created by the Regenerative Organic Alliance, a group of farmers, ranchers, brands, and experts in animal welfare and social fairness led by Rodale Institute and spearheaded by Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia. The Alliance’s executive director is Elizabeth Whitlow, former director of certification at EarthClaims and fellow at the Leadership for a Sustainable Future. Founding members include Compassion in World Farming, Demeter, Fair World Project, Grain Place Foods, Maple Hill Creamery, White Oak Pastures, and Rodale Institute.

The unofficial launch of ROC was made in 2017 at the Natural Foods Expo in Baltimore. Following that “soft launch” we asked for public comments—and we got them. After the comment period, we pulled back the standard, rewrote it to incorporate the comments we received wherever and whenever reasonable, and relaunched the standard at the Natural Foods Expo in Anaheim in March of 2018. The Regenerative Organic Alliance will continually reevaluate the certification guidelines and update them as necessary. For now, NSF International will administer the standard.

The Philosophy

There are several methods that can be employed to write a standard:

Philosophy, Testing, Practices

If one chooses philosophy as the backbone of a standard, acceptance can be limited to those for whom the philosophy already holds value. If the standard is based on testing, then the challenge to the producer becomes one of passing the test at the lowest cost and in the easiest manner—otherwise known as a race to the bottom, not a striving effort for a higher bar. However, if a standard is based on practices that are known to improve the system, then everyone who agrees to the standard (and thus the practices) is on the same road moving in the same direction, even if they do so at different speeds. Testing, which is part of the ROC stand-ard, becomes a tool to monitor improvement or progress. Those who participate are measured against themselves. The goal of continual improvement is to do better than you did before.

We need to shift our focus to clear, calculated changes to our food and agricultural production to make regenerative organic agriculture the new model both locally and globally. Customers who purchase products with the ROC label will know they are buying products that address the full suite of supply chain responsibility concerns and values they bring to the marketplace. That includes fair treatment of the environment and animals, fair and safe working conditions for farmers and farm workers, and mitigating climate change.

Goals of ROC

The primary goal of ROC is to build a certification that exemplifies the complete value chain that consumers want and deserve. Consumers shouldn’t have to choose between organic and fair trade or organic and animal welfare-approved. We need an all-inclusive standard that sets a truly high bar, leading the way towards systems that actively improve the resources they use instead of destroying them. Instead of minimizing the negative impacts of food and fiber production, our goal should be to maximize the positive benefits.

To that end, goals of the Regenerative Organic Certification include increasing soil organic matter over time, sequestering carbon in the soil, improving animal welfare, providing economic stability and fairness for farmers, ranchers, and workers, and creating resilient regional ecosystems and communities, all while eliminating food and fiber contamination from synthetic pesticides and other harmful inputs found in conventional production systems.

Regenerative Organic Certification does not aim to compete with or negate current organic standards. The certification uses the USDA’s National Organic Program (USDA Organic) certified organic standard (or its international equivalency) as a baseline requirement and adds criteria in the areas of soil health and land management, animal welfare, and farmer and worker fairness.

The Three Pillars

The baseline for Regenerative Organic Certification is the USDA National Organic Program standard. The certification then adds three pillars: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. Farms and producers earn one of the three levels—bronze, silver, or gold—depending on the number of regenerative practices employed. These tiers keep the concept of continuous improvement embedded in the certification. Again, participation in ROC requires current organic certification under a USDA NOP approved certifier or an IFOAM approved agency.

The full framework, available online at www.regenorganic.org, outlines in detail all the practices encouraged or required for farmers seeking ROC. Here’s a quick snapshot:

Soil health:

• Producers incorporate the use of cover crops on an annual basis and land maintains adequate cover year-round
• Tillage is infrequent and only occurs when necessary, never deeper than 10 inches except during preparation and planting of certain perennials, like orchards and vineyards
• Operations that include livestock utilize rotational grazing and do not graze sensitive areas (e.g. habitat for declining and rare species) when grazing could negatively impact the ecosystem
• Hydroponics and other soilless practices are not eligible for ROC
• Producers conduct soil health tests and track emissions and sequestrations
• Operations minimize use of off-farm inputs and recycle on-farm biomass

Animal welfare:

• Animals are not raised or fed in a manner that meets the EPA’s definition of a CAFO
• Feed for monogastric animals comes from regenerative organic, organic, or on-farm sources
• Ruminant feed comes from grass/forage/baleage/hay or organic sources
• The environment considers animals’ welfare needs and is designed to protect animals from physical and thermal discomfort, fear, distress, and allows them to perform natural behaviors
• Livestock should generally live, eat, and sleep outdoors on pasture
• Producers promote compassionate care and handling of animals

Social fairness:

• Operations do not discriminate in any aspect of the employment relationship
• The operation does not interfere with worker efforts to assemble, strike, or hold elections in an independent manner
• Large farm operations have process to listen and address worker complaints in a transparent process
• Workers earn a living wage as calculated based on the region’s cost of living and typical expenses
• Operators shall not require workers to work more than the regular and overtime hours allowed by the law of the country where the workers are employed

The goal of the certification process is to utilize existing certifiers already accredited by the USDA NOP. The certification process for ROC does not intend to disrupt any existing relationships between the producer and their current certification agency, therefore any USDA NOP accredited certifier can apply to become a ROC agency as well.

The builders of ROC recognize that each certification organization or agency is a service provider. ROC will simply become an additional service the certifier can supply to clients and customers. We understand that the audit protocols and expertise will be different to accommodate ROC’s three pillars; certification providers will likely need to train, hire or contract for the additional expertise.

What’s next?

Regenerative Organic Certification is currently in a pilot process. 22 brands and farms have been chosen to help develop a greater understanding of how ROC standards can be implemented on the ground. The pilot program will inform the creation of training materials, audit tools, guidance documents, and more. The Regenerative Organic Alliance is hopeful that the first Regenerative Organic Certified products will be available for purchase sometime in 2019.

We know that when we improve the health of the soil, we can improve human and planetary health. The ROC standard, based on organic certification, creates a dynamic path forward.

In our vision or the future, farmers are valued for the quality of the food and fiber they produce along with their positive impacts on the health of our soils, the animals in their care, and the workers who contribute. Regenerative Organic Certified farms represent the true power of agriculture to have a positive impact.

For more information on ROC and to view the full framework, visit RegenOrganic.org. From there, sign up to become an ally and receive regular updates.
Published in Winter 2018-19 issue.