Regenerative certification meant to add to USDA Organic, not supplant it, developers say

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Regenerative certification meant to add to USDA Organic, not supplant it, developers say
A new Regenerative Organic Certification program launching this week at Expo West is a meaningful extension of the base USDA Organic certification rather than a symptom of the tensions within the movement, proponents say. However, some observers have taken a wait and see attitude about whether the idea has legs.

One of the driving forces behind the new certification was personal care Dr. Bronner’s. In September of 2016 the company withdrew from the Organic Trade Association over disagreements about the labeling of GMO ingredients as well as tensions about whether alternative farming techniques, such as hydroponics, should be included in what’s called ‘organic.’ 

Dr Bronner’s, along with Patagonia and the Rodale Institute, came together to develop the new certification, which will be launched in beta test mode this week at a meeting in Anaheim, CA.

Adding to, rather supplanting, existing certification

Ryan Zinn, organic and fair trade coordinator for Dr Bronner’s, downplayed the schism within the organic movement, and preferred to take a forward-looking view of the development of the certification. 

“We had a great conversation with our new friends over at Patagonia. We are looking at this from a broader perspective of organic agriculture and the organic supply chain with the context of climate change,​ Zinn told FoodNavigator-USA.

“We were concerned that without some formal action, ’regenerative would go the way of ‘sustainable and ultimately wouldn’t mean anything,​ he said.

Zinn said the new certification is meant to use the USDA Organic certification as a basis, rather than seeking to replace the certification entirely. Some of the tensions around what the USDA certification was supposed to mean were present from the beginning, he said.

For example, in the political horse trading leading up the creation of the USDA Organic certification, notions of animal welfare and measurements of soil health were left aside in the process of seeking to not let perfect be the enemy of good.

“In the past, you have had industry stakeholders seeking to protect the marketplace,​ Zinn said. “Then on the other hand you had activist companies like Dr Bronner’s seeking to tackle the whole food system.

“We partnered with the Rodale Institute, which has really done the best research in the past 40 yours around regenerative agriculture. We had meetings with stakeholders about what to include in the new certification,​ he said.

One stop shop for ideas important to segment of market

Zinn said the new certification will capture values that some consumers hold dear without the need to delve into company marketing materials. These include ideas around animal welfare and fair trade considerations.  And in particular, the new program will capture ideas about the protection of and improvement of soil health.

“The nice thing is that this certification will cut through a lot of the noise. It will gather a lot of the things that are most important to consumers. All of their values can be embodied under one seal,​” he said.

Soil health

The soil health considerations are particularly important in this era of climate change, Zinn said. Traditional organic considerations talk about what should or shouldn’t be put into the soil or applied to the crops. They say less (or nothing) about what the soil and plants together in a plot can absorb in terms of carbon, and what that system should not emit in the form of excess nitrogen.

“We have incorporated the Cornell soil testing methodology as our soil health program. We want to encourage practices that we really know build up soil nutrients,​ he said.

“There will be a hard limit on imported nitrogen. Eventually we want to encourage farmers to transition away from external inputs and go to on-farm inputs like cover crops and so forth,​ Zinn said.

What consumers think they know informs what they want

But do most consumers just want better food and more potent ingredients?

Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council, said the new certification could help advance the values he and many others in the supply of botanical ingredients hold dear.  As to whether it addresses a real need in the marketplace in terms of what consumers are asking for, he’s less sure.

“I’ve not read any consumer survey about what the consumer perceptions are about what the term ‘organic on a label really means. I would think the  major expectation is that the food is devoid of chemical residues,​ he said.

If consumers associate ‘organic’ primarily with notions of ‘more healthful,’ or ‘cleaner,’ then the new certification might have an uphill battle, he said. Certainly in terms of botanical ingredients themselves, the conversation is more about purity and potency, and less about the local conditions where the ingredient came from.

“Research needs to be done to see if the regenerative techniques result in a superior botanical product from a medicinal perspective. I would like to believe that’s true from a philosophical perspective, but I have not seen any evidence to support that contention,​ he said.

Will retailers buy in?

So to some extent the future of the certification hinges on whether consumers can be educated enough to be made to care.  One of the avenues for making this change would be through education at the retailer level.

But what’s noisy and confusing for the consumer is for retailers, too.  At least one source in a major health food store chain has told FoodNavigator-USA off the record that the company’s management will most likely decide to stick to USDA Organic certifications and labels in light of so many newer certifications that seek to add on to that standard.

One of these add on standards, called Food Justice Certified, was launched at the Expo East trade show in Baltimore in 2014​. The move was the brainchild of Florida organic farmer Marty Mesh who thought that the issue of how farm laborers were treated was not being addressed in the USDA Organic standards.  You could have a clean, pesticide free and chemical residue free food or ingredient that was produced via an exploited workforce, for example. However, the standard has failed to gain much traction in the marketplace.

Zinn said the difference with the Regenerative Organic Certified standard is the power of the brands behind it.

“One of the challenges that the Food Justice certification had and some others have had is that they didn’t have any brand champions,​ he said.

“I understand that some retailers will take the position that they’ve heard this all before. But then they will see historically strong brands like Dr Bronner’s and Patagonia lining up behind this standard,​ he said.

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