If you spend any time grocery shopping, you have probably noticed a proliferation of product labels — organic, keto, vegan, “made with whole grains,” and more. Some of these labels have strict standards, some do not. And there is soon going to be a new label on products that means so much more: in 2020 we’re likely to see the label ROC added to products, and it’s a really good move.
ROC stands for Regenerative Organic Certification, and as a climate-smart consumer, it’s important for you to learn more about the nuances between this new label and regular organic.
Regenerative, as in healing, nourishing, and building; supportive of life cycles and biodiversity, and fair for humans and better for animals. The term was created in 2018 by the Rodale Institute, and is the certification now overseen by the Regenerative Organic Alliance.
Conventional, Organic & Regenerative Organic
So-called conventional agriculture, which is fossil-fuel dependent and relies heavily on chemical inputs to fertilize and protect the crops, can damage soil by depleting it of nutrients and damaging the very important soil microbiome. Heavy use of chemicals can also create superbugs, and these chemicals contribute to groundwater and waterway contamination (see, for example, the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico).
Organic agriculture is great: it’s better for the planet and people because farmers do not rely on chemical-intensive inputs to manage their crops. It reduces the pesticide/herbicide exposure risk to farmworkers, reduces consumers’ exposure to pesticides/herbicides, and is often less damaging to soils and the localized ecosystem. Organic certification ensures that producers follow strict guidelines about the seeds, the soil amendments and inputs, the crops themselves, as well as the processing facilities.
And yet, when I first started farming, I was shocked to learn that many organic amendments include things like blood, feather, and bone meal — waste products made with dead animals and their by-products. Not only is this super gross, it also supports the meat industries by making the waste products into a valuable commodity.
Most importantly, however, is that many organic-certified inputs do not actually improve the soil. While organic is better, it is not always proactively building, nourishing, and supporting the ecosystem in a holistic way. This is the gap that regenerative agriculture seeks to ameliorate. As we’ve learned more in recent years about the massive worlds of the microbiomes of land and sea, it’s become clear that the soil microbiome is more important than we thought.
What’s the Dirt on Healthy Soil?
Soil is so much more than the dirt under our feet: it’s a living medium that is full of microorganisms and organic matter, and it helps support the plants. These microorganisms are the basis of life in healthy soils, and building a healthier planet begins by improving the health of the soils. In an undisturbed ecosystem, this natural cycling of nutrients ensures longevity of the ecosystem — when we till and plant and dig and fertilize, we lose the connection to this natural cycle, and thus damage the health of the soil.
As I wrote in an article on our former site, Planetsave, soils are so often thought to be just a blank medium. However, soils are actually teeming with life of bacterial and fungal origin. “Healthy soils support life on this planet in many ways, including filtering and regulating water flow into surface water; sustaining plants and animals; filtering pollutants, cycling nutrients like carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus; and giving structure to the land, ensuring that the trees, topsoil and even human structures maintain their place on the land. But perhaps most importantly, when soils are healthy, they store huge amounts of carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere. But our current methods of agriculture have left us with degraded soils.”
Healthy soils are extremely important, both for the sustainability of crop growth and nutrition, but also because truly healthy soils act as large carbon sinks for our increasingly carbon-rich atmosphere (and ICYMI, this is a big problem). The healthier our soils are, the more carbon they can absorb from the atmosphere.
The science is clear: soil health is intrinsic to climate health. According the the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO):
“Agricultural soils are among the planet’s largest reservoirs of carbon and hold potential for expanded carbon sequestration (CS), and thus provide a prospective way of mitigating the increasing atmospheric concentration of CO2. It is estimated that soils can sequester around 20 Pg C in 25 years, more than 10 % of the anthropogenic emissions.”
Building a better agricultural system that’s focused on rebuilding our soils, providing better food, and improving livelihoods is long overdue.
Another issue that’s important to consider is that farmers and ranchers are not incentivized to improve the soil — often they are working to produce as much food as possible, and they might not have the time nor have the inclination to do the intense work of cover cropping, composting, and creating/adding the plans and soil amendments that will improve their crops in the long term.
If you’ve never thought about the importance of soil before, this is your warning light! According to some reports, we have only 60 years of functional topsoil left. Topsoil is very limited, and we need to undertake rapid and massive transformation to protect what’s left and make the effort to build more.
The Regenerative Organic Collective Comes Together
ROC was established in 2017 by a group of farmers, business leaders, and experts in soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness — now known as the Regenerative Organic Collective. As written on their site: “We exist to heal a broken system, repair a damaged planet, and empower farmers and eaters to create a better future through better farming.” Elsewhere on the site, they explain their goal as birthing a new standard to elevate farming around the world.
They have developed a very specific process by which producers can become certified, and it dovetails with existing certifications, like Organic certification or Demeter certification (the program that certifies biodynamic production). There are already lots of great brands on board, like Justin’s, Patagonia Provisions, Navitas Naturals, Dr. Bronner’s soaps, Nature’s Path organics, and of course, Rodale Institute, which has been talking about regenerative agricultural practices for years as the soil solution we need.
It’s hard to argue with their vision for the world free of:
- Poisonous chemicals
- Factory farming
- Soil degradation
- Habitat destruction
- Pollution, short-term thinking, corporate bullies, greenwashing, and fake food.
When organic first became a mainstream movement, it was derided as elitist, or superficial — with the assumption that it was a silly project for wealthy elites, and that it wasn’t actually going to help that much. But hopefully the above information can convince you — this is not a political issue. Making a big shift away from chemical-intensive and fossil-fuel driven farming into a system that is holistic and regenerative is literally about saving the remaining soil we have and protecting the planet for generations of eaters to come.
Thankfully, bigger brands are paying attention to this important movement. General Mills announced in 2019 a huge commitment to regenerative agriculture, and if the movement continues and is supported by consumer, many other large companies will soon follow suit.
There is no official timeline yet, but hopefully we’ll start to see this important label in the final months of 2020.