Raising the Bar: Regenerative Organic Certification

Zoe Schaeffer

See COG President Rochelle Eisen’s take on the Regenerative Organic Certification. A detailed comparison of the Regenerative Organic Certification and the Canadian Organic Standards is available in the Fall/Winter 2019 issue of TCOG.

It’s been more than 15 years since the first national standards for organic certification were established in the United States in 2002. Those rules created a standard of production across organic farms that assures consumers their purchases are produced without the use of harmful chemicals or GMOs. 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 problems important today, including soil degradation, labor injustice, and an increasingly unsteady climate. It’s time to go further.

Introducing Regenerative Organic Certification

Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) is a holistic agriculture certification encompassing robust, high-bar standards for ensuring soil health and ecological land management, pasture-based animal welfare, and fairness for farmers and workers. It 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 organic certification, 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, and White Oak Pastures. The Regenerative Organic Alliance will continually reevaluate the certification guidelines and update them as necessary. NSF International will administer the standard.

“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,” said Jeff Moyer, executive director of Rodale Institute. “Customers who purchase products with the ROC label will know they are buying products that address the full suite of supply chain responsibility concerns, from environment and animal treatment to fair and safe working conditions for farmers and farm workers, while also helping to mitigate climate change.”

How it Works

The certification has three pillars: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. Depending on the number of regenerative practices employed, a farm can earn one of three levels of certification: bronze, silver, or gold.

The full framework, available online at RegenOrganic.org, outlines in detail all the practices encouraged for farmers seeking ROC. Here’s a 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, such as 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 (concentrated animal feeding operation)
  • 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 animal

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

Goals of ROC

The goals of the 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. 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.

What’s Next?

Regenerative Organic Certification is currently in a pilot process. Twenty 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 in 2019.

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.