Regenerative Agriculture Standards: To Certify or Not to Certify?

Policy: It is hard to walk down a grocery aisle without noticing labels like Non-GMO, Rainforest Alliance Certified, Organic, Certified Transitional, Whole30, Certified Humane, and 100% Grass-Fed plastered on the front of our favorite brands. In last week’s newsletter, we mentioned that many critics view the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (NOP), and many other certifications for that matter, as less of a health or welfare and more of a marketing scheme. For an environmentally conscious farmer to showcase their nutritional, ethical, and ecological commitments, they must file lengthy applications and pay steep fees towards accredited land auditors. 

What are the Certification Standards for Regenerative Agriculture?

In lieu of a universal definition, regenerative agriculture has existed for decades as a farming philosophy that works in partnership with nature to produce food that restores the ecosystems it was grown in. But at this very moment, there are at least five regenerative labels in the works. The Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC), which applies to any product made with agricultural ingredients, is the closest to industry-wide adoption. The ROC standards are based around three pillars: ecosystem health, animal welfare, and fair labor practices. Food, fuel, and fiber producers are evaluated at three tiers – bronze, silver, and gold. Participants must gradually make improvements to progress through the levels.


What is the Regenerative Organic Certification? (ROC)

The ROC was first conceptualized back in 2018 by the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA) – a group of companies and organizations including the Rodale Institute, Dr. Bronner’s, and Patagonia. With the idea of designing “one standard to rule them all,” the ROC blends best practices from pre-existing standards, as well as new criteria, into one certification. And on the surface, its goals are in alignment with those of sustainable agriculture proponents. However, the introduction of the ROC has not come without controversy.

Criticisms of the ROC Label

The new label is already garnering criticism because it: 

  • Adds confusion to a crowded marketplace: The Organic Trade Association (OTA) warns that the ROC presents a risk to the success of the USDA Organic label because of the overlap between two of the three pillars – soil health and animal welfare. In its ROC comments, General Mills – the fourth-largest producer of organic and natural foods – said that “we are concerned that yet another eco-label, with multiple tiers within, will further complicate the landscape of [third-party] labels for consumers.” A similar sentiment was echoed by Stonyfield, the largest US producer of organic yogurt. The company believes that it will be hard to explain why the ROC certification is needed without confusing consumers. 
  • Is only accessible to a small subset of producers: The USDA organic certification is a baseline requirement for the ROC. ROC-certified producers must also meet “regenerative” criteria – including crop rotation, rotational grazing, livestock feed from regenerative sources, protections for workers against wage theft, and more. To cover the auditing costs of the ROC, farms pay a fee of 0.1 percent of sales while brands cough up 0.2 percent of sales. In doing so, the ROC is only relevant to a tiny fraction of producers who operate a small portion of farmland across the US. And only the most affluent consumers can purchase ROC products, which inevitably cost more than their organic counterparts. 
  • Perpetuates a practice-based structure: Similar to the NOP, and other prominent standards, the ROC is currently enforcing a practice-based rather than outcome-based structure. Instead of measuring for ecological benefits, a practice-based standard constrains producers by mandating what they can and cannot do. In contrast, a standard based on tangible outcomes grants producers the freedom to use creative practices specific to their operation.

Can the ROC be Improved?

A new standard that tackles the issues of sustainable farming, animal welfare, economic justice, and fair labor practices is not a bad thing. We must also recognize that enforcing strict standards and steep fees along the lines of the ROC has the potential to squash innovation and create a food system where regenerative goods are inaccessible to 99% of consumers. With it only being the third year of the ROC, there is time for the ROA to refine the standard and develop its cost-share program that supports farmers making the transition to regenerative practices. Until then, we would love to hear your initial thoughts on the ROC framework! 

Further Reading and Additional Information

Read: In The Third Plate, Dan Barber explores the evolution of the US food system and how it must transition to a cuisine rooted in “seasonal productivity, natural livestock rhythms, whole-grains, and small portions of free-range meat.” Barber is a critically acclaimed author and the co-owner of New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns, where he practices close-to-the-land cooking married with stewardship of the earth.  Through his nonprofit, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Barber is able to bring the principles of sustainable farming directly to the table. If you don’t have time to read the book, Barber’s Ted Talks are an easy way to hear his views on agricultural policy and the future food system.