For nearly a quarter century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture
has provided its USDA Organic label to products that minimize
chemical inputs and are not genetically modified (GMO). The green-and-white
seal helped organic food to grow from a niche to the $50 billion-plus industry
it is today.
Soon, consumers will start seeing another
label: Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC). Advocates say it takes organic
agriculture’s emphasis on soil health; promotes carbon sequestration in soil,
which could reduce the risks of global climate change; and adds other Good Food
Movement principles such as animal welfare and fairness to farm workers.
The Rodale Institute,
located in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, has led the
effort to promote the concept of regenerative agriculture and began pressing
for a regenerative label seven years ago. The Institute touts the ROC label as
a “holistic high-bar standard for agriculture certification.”
The Institute sparked the creation in 2018
of the Regenerative Organic Alliance, a nonprofit
“made up of experts in farming, ranching, soil health, animal welfare and
farmer and worker fairness.” A pilot project involving 22 farm and food
companies launched in 2019 persuaded the Alliance to initiate a formal ROC
program which the alliance administers.
Regenerative agriculture also captured
attention from leading Good Food advocates. The 2018 Natural Products Expo West, in Anaheim, California, had five panels on the topic,
and Chicago nonprofit FamilyFarmed made regenerative
agriculture the subject of the opening symposium at its Good Food EXPO.
These three pillars of the ROC label are
shared widely by all Good Food Movement advocates:
SOIL HEALTH: “Use of regenerative practices like cover crops, crop rotation and
conservation tillage. Builds organic matter and promotes biodiversity with no
synthetic inputs. Excludes soil-less systems.”
ANIMAL WELFARE: “Protects the ‘five freedoms,’ grass-fed and pasture-raised, no concentrated
animal feeding operations (CAFO, aka factory farms) or extensive transport,
“Ensures fair payments and living
wages for farmers and farmworkers, safe working conditions, capacity building
and freedom of association.”
It will, however, take time before we will
know whether regenerative agriculture emerges as “Organic Plus” or becomes an
adjunct to the USDA Organic label (as well as another recently launched label,
Real Organic, administered by the Real Organic Project,
which like ROC, is only applied to foods that originate in soil, excluding
hydroponic and aeroponic production).
The ROC label is just now being rolled out. Alexandre Family Farm, an eco-dairy farm in Crescent City, California, that was
part of the pilot project, launched its official ROC label on February 1.
The Illinois Stewardship Alliance (ISA) is a nonprofit advocacy group with this
mission: to find, connect, train and amplify the leadership of farmers and
eaters that use their choices and their voices to shape a more just and
regenerative local food and farm system. The Alliance is a founding member of
the Regenerate Illinois network of farmers,
nonprofits, businesses and researchers.
ISA Executive Director Liz Moran Stelk says,
“Labels like ROC are essential to reward farmers who are doing the right thing
and for consumers who can afford it to find food they trust.” She notes, “But
it can’t be a diversion from the fundamental policy changes we need in order
for those protections to become industry-wide standards. Food that’s healthy,
affordable and reflects our values shouldn’t be relegated to the specialty
aisle—it should be the whole store.”
Many Organic-certified farmers in the
Chicago foodshed are taking a wait-and-see approach. One of these is Jen
Miller, who with husband Jeff Miller, owns Prairie Wind Family Farm
at the Prairie Crossing conservation community in north suburban Grayslake.
is a 40-acre farm with 12 to
15 acres in production that according to Miller grow 125 varieties of
vegetables, as well as cover crops designed to the “particular nutrient needs
of each field’s soil.” The farm is certified for both the USDA Organic and Real
Miller, who also serves as managing director of the Liberty Prairie Foundation, says, “We use regenerative
farming techniques to improve soil health and life, building thriving
ecosystems and producing nutritious food in ways that are sustainable for those
who produce the food and eat the food.” She advises, “We consider ourselves to
be ecological or conservation-minded farmers. We strive to give more than we
take, and we mean that in terms of stewardship of our land, care for our
community, care for our animals and sharing knowledge with other farmers.”
About whether Prairie Wind
will pursue the ROC label, she says,
“We’d like to know more about the certification and its implementation on farms
like ours first to provide a better perspective.”
Harold Wilken has spearheaded the transition of thousands of
acres of east-central Illinois to organic grain growing, and his decades-long
dedication to soil health at his Janie’s Farm, in
Danforth, gained him regard as a model for regenerative agriculture. Wilken, who also operates Janie’s Mill,
in Ashkum, Illinois, which produces high-quality USDA Organic flours for the
retail market, sees “organic” and “regenerative” as virtually synonymous when
it comes to the crucial issue of soil health.
“One of the biggest benefits of going organic is seeing the
change in the land,” Wilken says. “We end up transitioning some new land every
year for new landowners, and it still never ceases to amaze me how we take the
land from kind of a barren soil with no life in it and make it into organic.”
Whether the ROC label ultimately supplements or supersedes the
USDA Organic label, it is another strong indication that sustainable
agriculture is a rising tide.
Bob Benenson is a longtime Good Food writer and advocate who
lives in Chicago. Contact him at [email protected].