A new regenerative organic certification was unveiled last week during Natural Products Expo West by the Regenerative Organic Alliance. According to Just Food, the program would set a higher bar for organic standards than are currently followed in the U.S. by including criteria relating to improved soil conditions, animal welfare, land management and fairness for both farmers and their workers.
The alliance said it has been working on setting up the certification framework since last fall and, after collecting comments from farmers, ranchers, certifiers and other stakeholders, plans to launch a pilot program this year with producers, brands and certifying organizations. Educational tools also are planned to help producers incorporate regenerative organic practices into their operations and to bring in other brands interested in creating program-certified products.
Alliance supporters, among others, include the Rodale Institute, Justin's, Horizon Organic, Patagonia and Thrive Market.
The alliance set out a four-year timeline for transitioning to its organic certification. It also established three levels of certification at the producer level depending on the operation. The group notes that it is not trying to compete with, or negate, current organic standards but to serve as a mechanism to support them.
This is the second recent effort to augment standards for organic certification in the U.S. The other is the Real Organic Project, which proposes an add-on label pilot program to certify that an agricultural operation has adhered to animal welfare and growing practices beyond what the "USDA Organic" seal currently requires. That group hasn't yet adopted specific criteria, but its 15-member board reportedly plans to meet later this month.
The U.S. Agriculture Department's decision not to move forward with the organic livestock and poultry practices rule was likely one impetus behind these new certification efforts, although the sentiment toward bolstering certification for food products and agricultural operations has been growing for a while.
Another factor that likely prompted these developments was the National Organic Standards Board vote last November to allow hydroponic and aquaponic farms to continue earning organic certification. Some organic farmers had proposed that the board bar such operations from the certification and establish that only farming in healthy soil was acceptable for consideration.
Until these two organic certification efforts are established, it's not clear how they might impact food producers wanting the certification, what it would take to certify and how much time and money it would cost. Still, this certification could be a good way for manufacturers to appeal to consumers who continue to embrace mission-based brands that are transparent about their behind-the-scenes operations.
A 2017 report from The Hartman Group reported that about 70% of consumers would like retailers to be more transparent in how they address issues such as the environment, labor and animal welfare. Another study from Response Media found most respondents would be willing to pay more for transparent products.
Some big food companies have already embraced regenerative farming practices and advertise that commitment on their marketing and branding. General Mills recently announced that two of its Annie's branded products were being produced on a limited-edition basis using organic ingredients from regenerative farm operations in Montana. The company said the products would be available at Sprouts Farmers Market outlets starting in April. It will be interesting to see how the two Annie's products perform and whether consumers — and product competitors — respond to this General Mills experiment.
Still, while many shoppers say they appreciate more product information, it may be that more certifications and other text will result in information overload for consumers already inundated by label claims. It's also unclear whether the average consumer knows the definition of regenerative farming, so some education and outreach will be needed to make these certifications relevant to them.