Regenerative agriculture is moving the sustainability goalpost in the nutrition industry

February 14, 2019

Now that organic production-not to mention fair-trade, sustainable, traceable, et al.-is increasingly table stakes for the wellness industry, what’s the next hurdle for companies to clear in demonstrating their commitment to a healthy planet and healthy consumers? Regenerative agriculture.

Whether you formulate dietary supplements or functional foods, the arguments both economic and environmental for sourcing organically are pretty well established. But now that organic production-not to mention fair-trade, sustainable, traceable, et al.-is increasingly table stakes for the wellness industry, what’s the next hurdle for companies to clear in demonstrating their commitment to a healthy planet and healthy consumers?

If a growing coalition of brands, farmers, and forward-thinking organizations has anything to do with it, it may involve a progressive approach to farming that seems novel, but that actually dates back generations. That approach, known as regenerative organic agriculture, takes the principles of organic and runs with them, aiming not just at minimized chemical use or sustainability, but at measurably improving the land and water we farm, and the lives of the people and animals involved.

True, regenerative agriculture may not have the cache of organic yet. But the fact that multiple groups are either hammering out or in the process of implementing standards for identifying and certifying its principles in practice means that this enlightened effort at holistic food and fiber production is worth understanding. And for the sake of all of our futures, it’s worth pursuing.

Regenerative Roots

If anyone has a stake in regenerative organic agriculture, it’s the team at the Rodale Institute (Kutztown, PA). For it was Robert Rodale himself-son of the institute’s founder, J.I. Rodale-who coined the term “regenerative organic agriculture” to describe a philosophy of farming that surpasses the merely sustainable.

How so? According to the Rodale Institute, regenerative organic agriculture doesn’t just protect and preserve the resources it uses-let alone deplete them, it actually leaves them in better condition than before. That means accounting for the health of the soil and water as well as the health and economic and spiritual wellbeing of farmers, farmworkers, and farm animals.

Or, per the similar definition devised by Los Angeles–based The Carbon Underground and Regenerative Agriculture Initiative at California State University, Chico, regenerative agriculture incorporates “farming and grazing practices that, among other benefits, reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity-resulting in both carbon drawdown and improving the water cycle.”

Regenerative agriculture mirrors organic in emphasizing minimal use of dangerous chemical inputs-thus producing safer food in an environment that’s safer for those who work and live in it. But it differs from, and exceeds, organic’s baseline by committing to broader matters of social justice, community health, and animal welfare, and in aiming at the quantifiable betterment of natural resources for generations to come.


Reclaiming the Regenerative Ground

So when representatives of the Rodale Institute, along with allied organizations and companies like Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia, began noticing a creeping cooptation of the term regenerative by chemical companies, they realized that if they didn’t reclaim the word and all it stood for, it risked being “greenwashed” outright. Or, as Jeff Moyer, executive director of the Rodale Institute, put it, “If we didn’t act now, other organizations would come in and potentially threaten the larger organic movement.”

So they united as the Regenerative Organic Alliance and began developing a Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) program that would put all interested parties on the same page as far as regenerative organic farming was concerned.

The Alliance intended for the ROC program to be ambitious, says Diana Martin, director of communications at Rodale: “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.”

Measurable endpoints include increased soil organic matter over time; improvements in animal welfare, economic stability, and fairness for farmers, ranchers, and workers; and the creation of resilient regional ecosystems and communities. “Ultimately,” says Martin, “the goal of the ROC is to encourage operations to think about all three modules-soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness-to create a truly regenerative system.”


 

Setting the Standards

In addition to Rodale, the program includes such founding members as Compassion in World Farming, Demeter, Fair World Project, Grain Place Foods, Maple Hill Creamery, and White Oak Pastures and, Martin continues, “has been established to continuously review and update the certification guidelines.” In October, CV Sciences Inc., manufacturer of the PlusCBD Oil hemp extract brand, announced that it is also joining the cause.

Acting as program manager for the ROC is NSF International (Ann Arbor, MI), which facilitated the public comment phase that took place during the protocol’s development. In its current capacity, NSF will lead all efforts to support the program’s implementation, overseeing training and educating of certifying bodies, data collection management of audit information, and reporting.

According to Jessica Evans, director of standards development at NSF International, certification requirements will address farming and ranching operations, transportation, slaughter, and certain processing facilities that produce food and fiber.

“Producers can start on the path to ROC from several different places,” she explained, “as either a conventional producer, a certified transitional producer, or a USDA National Organic Program (NOP) certified producer.” Regardless of where they enter, producers generally move from conventional to transitional organic, then to certified organic, and then to ROC Bronze, Silver, and Gold status.


Above and Beyond

As that progression implies, ROC “builds off the requirements of the USDA NOP certification program and allows producers going above and beyond in animal welfare, soil health, and worker fairness practices to be recognized for their efforts,” Evans says.

And as evidenced by the fact that only products that have already achieved USDA NOP certification will get the ROC’s nod, the ROC’s backers didn’t intend for their “above-and-beyond” approach to supplant existing organic standards. Rather, ROC certification supports those standards while encouraging producers to adopt holistic, regenerative practices throughout their operations, especially vis-à-vis animal welfare and farmer and worker fairness.

Martin adds that ROC certification need not add to producers’ already growing list of certification burdens, and “was developed to avoid duplication of audits and certifications and even accepts existing high-bar certifications”-Demeter Biodynamic, Global Animal Partnership, and Agricultural Justice Project’s among them-“to fulfill both the animal welfare and fairness for farmers and farmworkers requirements.”

The Regenerative Organic Alliance is justly proud of its broad-based approach. As Moyer notes, “There are a lot of companies, farmers, and others talking about regenerative farming. Our certification is the only one that starts with organic, and the only one that also incorporates standards for social fairness and animal welfare.”

Climate Action from the Ground Up

As far as soil health is concerned, the ROC accepts USDA NOP organic and other internationally recognized organic certifications as a baseline step. But, says Martin, “There are then additional regenerative requirements to meet, which a farm can tailor to their specific growing region. It’s all part of their journey to ROC.”

And the soil component, in particular, helps make the ROC program so important-and so groundbreaking. That’s because “healthy soil is the key to healthy people and a healthy planet,” Moyer says. Alas, the planet loses the equivalent of 30 soccer fields of soil every minute, mainly due to industrial farming.

In fact, if the soil destruction caused by decarbonization, erosion, desertification, and chemical pollution continues at current rates, soil scientists predict that “within 50 years we will not only suffer serious damage to public health due to a qualitatively degraded food supply characterized by diminished nutrition and loss of important trace minerals,” Martin warns. “We will literally no longer have enough arable topsoil to feed ourselves.”

And that’s just the nutrition angle. Soil is critical to absorbing carbon and filtering water. So as soil deteriorates, it stores less carbon, the world grows hotter, and the land further degrades. Moyer calls it “a vicious cycle.” Yet generating 3 cm of topsoil takes 1,000 years, and about one-third of the world’s soil has already deteriorated as a direct result of chemical agriculture. That, in turn, “exposes people to toxic chemicals and causes unnecessary suffering to animals that support this system,” he concludes.

But all is not lost. If it were, the Alliance behind the ROC program wouldn’t have made its effort in the first place. For, as Moyer says, “As grim as this picture looks, the direct benefits of regenerative organic agriculture are extraordinary”: better food and higher-quality fibers, rebuilt topsoil, reduced pollution from chemicals, sequestered carbon-all at once. “As we face environmental catastrophe, this may be the best shot we’ve got at moving the needle,” he says.

 

Going Live

The ROC certification program debuted at Natural Products Expo East in 2017, and after a public comment period the official framework went live in early 2018. “Just recently,” Martin says, “ROC entered the pilot phase in which 23 farms and brands will begin to experiment with the practices on the ground so we can test the feasibility of their implementation for a wide range of farm types and climates. We’re hoping that the first ROC-labeled products will be on shelves in 2019.”

It’s an exciting prospect for the program’s supporters and participants, as well as for supplement and functional food brands that consciously seek out ROC-certified ingredients. And “for consumers who value this criteria,” Evans says, “the program provides an easy way to verify label claims and choose products that align with their beliefs.”

Martin agrees. “Consumers purchasing ROC products will know that they’re buying a product that addresses the full suite of supply chain responsibility concerns, from environmental and animal treatment to fair and safe working conditions for farmers and farm workers. Also, since regenerative farming practices enhance carbon sequestration, consumers will be supporting the fight to mitigate climate change.”

But ROC isn’t the only certification standard out there. In March 2018, The Carbon Underground and Green America partnered with Ben & Jerry’s (Unilever), DanoneWave, Annie’s (General Mills), and MegaFood to develop their own global verification standard for food grown regeneratively. Again, the standard will give farmers even more incentive to restore the carbon cycle, build soil health, improve crop resilience, and increase finished-harvest nutrient density.

The work reflects the regenerative agriculture definition created by The Carbon Underground, Cal State Chico, and the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative, which includes 150-plus companies, organizations, and scientists as signatories. And similarly to ROC certification, it will recognize related standards such as USDA NOP, Non-GMO Project Verified, and the like, and will give farmers flexibility in implementation, with credit for outcomes already achieved.

So will consumers know the difference? And will it even matter if everyone’s end goal is fairer farms, healthier soil, and a swing at the climate change piñata?

“The market is indeed saturated with certifications that can be confusing to consumers and even to industry experts,” Martin concedes. Speaking for her own organization’s seal of approval, she continues, “Once the certification is a bit more mature, our hope is that consumers will look for it as a way to avoid confusion, knowing that ROC addresses all their concerns.”

Besides, says Moyer, “Isn’t it time we had a higher standard for the way we treat our farmers, farmworkers, and animals? Regenerative organic standards and certification offer a path forward that considers the health of the entire system and the planet.”

 

Sidebar 1:

Preserving the Indian Kino Tree

While members of the Regenerative Organic Alliance and Regenerative Agriculture Initiative were drawing up guidelines for their respective certification programs, botanical ingredients supplier Sabinsa (East Windsor, NJ) was halfway around the world working with local governments to plant hundreds of acres of land of a medicinal tree that, absent such an effort, ran the risk of dying out.

Some background: Sabinsa has always believed that cultivating medicinal plants is the best way to sustain supplies of quality raw materials-especially in the face of growing interest in herbal and botanical ingredients, says Shaheen Majeed, Sabinsa’s president worldwide. So years ago, the company began instituting cultivation programs to help sustain safe supplies of the herbs that form its product base.

Those programs go beyond planting plants to working with farmers on the ground, in the field. “We teach them good agricultural practices that minimize chemical use and produce top-quality herbs and higher yields,” Majeed says. Further, Sabinsa guarantees its partners’ incomes and even includes a provision in grower agreements that if the harvested material’s value rises, the farmer will get the true price, even if it exceeds the originally agreed-upon one.

“It’s beyond fair trade in that we’re not just making sure they get a living wage,” Majeed says. “We’re helping them have better harvests, improving local schools and infrastructure, and even doing things like giving the village kids jackets, school supplies, and soccer balls they wouldn’t otherwise have. The relationships we build through supporting small farming communities in India surprised and delighted us.”

But despite Sabinsa’s confidence that the careful cultivation fostered through its fair-trade programs could protect supplies of herbal ingredients, “trees,” Majeed notes, “which take decades to reach maturity before becoming available for commercial use, need appropriate strategies to replenish, and long-term thinking to make them available for future generations. Some potent tree species face danger of disappearance because of overexploitation without any conservation measures in place.”

Thus the group has committed to funding a 10-year reforestation project that’ll ensure the planting of more than 166,600 Indian kino (Pterocarpus marsupium, Fabaceae) trees on 250 acres in Madhya Pradesh state. “This species has been used in India’s traditional medicine system of Ayurveda, and the traditionally known antidiabetic properties of Pterocarpus marsupium are being confirmed by modern research,” Majeed says. “So demand will grow. Without this advance planning, the species could have been wiped out by market pressure.”

With the State Forest department fast-tracking the program, the first phase of reforestation was completed within six months of entering into the agreement to identify and prepare suitable forestland for planting; develop desirable planting material, proper fencing, and security measures; and plant at the right season, Majeed says. The group expects to spend about $500,000 on the project, with the payoff being a secure supply of a high-value, multipurpose, threatened Indian species.

Now Sabinsa is meeting with the forest departments of other Indian states to initiate regeneration programs for rare medicinal tree species in those areas, too. “Such commitment will not only help regeneration of rare species, but create awareness amongst users and sensitize them. We hope other companies that harvest and sell trees will follow our example and begin thinking much longer term,” says Majeed.