Understanding the New Regenerative Organic Certification

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Anaheim, CA — This year’s Natural Products Expo West saw a good deal of discussion on agriculture, particularly the future of the USDA Organic standard and the importance of soil health to sustainable agriculture after a recent decision to allow the labeling of hydroponically grown crops as organic. In response, industry leaders have come together to create the Regenerative Organic Certification, which was introduced during a panel at the trade show. The panel included Jeff Moyer, executive director, the Rodale Institute, Nova Sayers, development manager for food and sustainability for NSF International, David Bronner, cosmic engagement officer, Dr. Bronner’s, Leah Garces, USA executive director for Compassion in World Farming, Dana Geffner, co-founder and executive director for Fair World Project and Rose Marcario, president and CEO of Patagonia.

This high-bar standard is based on three pillars of soil health, animal welfare and social fairness, essentially combining all the most rigorous aspects of the organic, fair trade and animal welfare standards that currently exist to create a huge environmental and social impact. When it comes to soil health, “regenerative” is the key word. Moyer explained that not enough attention is being paid to the importance of soil health for not only agriculture but the environment and this new standard is an attempt to provoke change. While he considers the USDA Organic standard to be important, he wants ROC to be more in line with what “organic” represented prior to its regulation by USDA.

Elements of ROC already exist in USDA Organic such as no synthetic fertilizers/pesticides and no genetically modified organisms, but greater emphasis is being placed on promoting biodiversity and building soil organic matter through conservational tillage, cover crops, crop rotation and rotational grazing of livestock. Considering that USDA has recently withdrawn animal welfare regulations for their organic standard, ROC’s emphasis on animal welfare is significant. Some of the panelists are vegan and acknowledge the importance of livestock management for the promotion of soil health. They see the problem to be factory farming and the cruel conditions in which many animals are raised as livestock. They want respect for the life and death of these animals.

Under ROC, livestock are given “five freedoms,” which are freedom from discomfort, freedom from fear and distress, freedom from hunger, freedom from pain, injury and disease, and the freedom to express normal behavior. This means grass-fed, pasture-raised cattle, no concentrated animal feeding operations, suitable shelters, limited animal transport and rotational grazing. Beyond just providing a higher quality of life for the animals, it is also a more sustainable, considering that factory farming has created an agricultural monoculture where a majority of agriculture is devoted to feeding livestock. This has resulted in genetically modified crops and the overuse of pesticides that have created runoff into rivers and eventually the ocean, resulting in dead zones. For reference, the animal welfare component will encompass the best aspects of the Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved and Global Animal standards.

The final component is social fairness which will ensure that farm workers receive a living wage, proper working conditions, long term commitments and freedom of association. Farms under the ROC standard cannot use forced labor and must exercise transparency and accountability. NSF International will help to implement the standard. Currently, there is an open comment period and ROC is accepting applications for pilot farms to test the standards. From conventional to ROC, there is an estimated six years to fully transition, but having certifications such as USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project Verification, Transitional Organic as well as animal welfare and social fairness standards will speed up this process. There are also tiers within ROC: Bronze, Silver and Gold. ROC Bronze, for example, is an off-pack certification that can be claimed publically but not allowed on product labels. Annual recertification is required and after three years of Bronze, an operation must advance to Silver or Gold in order to make continued public claims. Silver level does allow product labeling and requires at least 50% fiber-to-food-producing land to be certified initially and must reach 75% by the fifth year. Gold level requires 100% fiber-to-food-producing land to be certified. Both Silver and Gold require annual recertification.

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