Image courtesy of Rodale Institute

What Consumers Need To Know

Regenerative is the new sustainable. It’s a word that’s simultaneously powerful and completely meaningless—a signifier of innovation employed by truly organic farmers and a ploy to deceive consumers concerned about agriculture’s ecological footprint.

The Cornucopia Institute is particularly concerned with messaging on regenerative practices in agriculture and is committed to elevating authentic organic farmers who prioritize the health of the complex biological systems that are foundational to organic food systems.

While the USDA organic label encourages soil stewardship, it no longer explicitly requires it. Labels from the Real Organic Project and Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC), both of which are add-on certification options for farms that are already USDA certified organic, alert consumers to farmers who responsibly steward the soil. Farms that carry these labels receive extra points when rated in Cornucopia’s scorecards, a hallmark of our work that showcases ethical farms and their brands.

“Rock-Star” Organic Farmers

In 2020 consumers can expect to hear more about Regenerative Organic Certification, endorsed by David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s. “ROC, I joke, stands for certifying rock-star organic farmers,” says Bronner. “Regenerative Organic is just recognizing what really good organic farmers already do.”

Led by the Rodale Institute, the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA) will oversee Regenerative Organic Certification. ROA is in the final phase of its pilot program, which includes such participants as Maple Hill Creamery (a Cornucopia-rated, 5-cow dairy), Legend Organic Farm (also certified by Real Organic Project) and Patagonia. The application process will open late spring or early summer.

Certification is based on three pillars: pasture-based animal welfare, requirements for soil health and land management and social fairness. According to ROC’s website, its Soil Health and Land Management module “seeks to facilitate the adoption of agricultural practices that build, rather than degrade, soils, by increasing soil organic matter, biodiversity, and fertility.”

But increasingly, regenerative is used to define a completely different agricultural scenario. “The term is getting co-opted by pretty much everyone to make it mean whatever they want it to mean,” says Bronner, a board member of the Regenerative Organic Alliance. “Often times that means, say, burn the weeds down with glyphosate in a no till weed-killer regimen.” That practice is still heavily reliant on synthetic nitrogen, industrial agriculture’s number-one contributor to greenhouse gases.

Elevating Authentic Organic Farmers

Sharing the mission of Cornucopia’s scorecards, Regenerative Organic Certification ultimately aims to recognize truly authentic organic farmers, giving them another differentiator in an increasingly confusing marketplace. The goal is not to malign organic, Bronner says, but to recognize high-bar farming.

That farming is entirely modern and runs counter to the popular notion that organic farming is simply the farming of our forbearers.

“A smart regenerative farmer is doing a hyper-variable calculus to be able to do that really smart crop rotation and match that with market demand,” Bronner says. “It’s not easy to do this right. But that’s what this is—it’s knowledge-intensive farming and not chemical-intensive.”

Cornucopia will continue to monitor add-on labels as part of its goal to increase consumer education and inspire marketplace activism in support of farms and brands that employ management practices that sequester carbon, build soil, and store water in the ground, while protecting and promoting human health, ecosystems and animal welfare.

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