Elizabeth Whitlow is executive director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA), a nonprofit organization that oversees Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC), a rigorous new certification for food, textiles, and personal care ingredients. With a career spanning over 20 years in organic ag, Elizabeth has worked for a number of farming and ranching certification organizations, including CCOF and EarthClaims. She joined OPN for a conversation about why ROC was founded, the overall framework of the certification, ROA's decision to prohibit soilless practices, and more.
What led to the creation of the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA) and Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC)?
The Regenerative Organic Alliance was founded by Rodale Institute, Patagonia, and Dr. Bronner’s soap company in 2017. ROA also includes a group of experts in farming, ranching, soil health, animal welfare, and farmer and worker fairness.
ROC was created because regenerative organic agriculture has the potential to address many of today’s pressing problems, including the climate crisis, factory farming, and fractured rural economies. Industrial agriculture and factory farming of animals are top contributors to climate change. In turn, climate change is making it harder to farm.
Elizabeth Whitlow, Executive Director, Regenerative Organic Alliance
Our conventional farming system has degraded the soil to dangerous levels around the world. Farmers and farmworkers are too often exploited, and rural economies are suffering. We need to make clear, calculated changes to our food and fiber systems to make regenerative organic the new model. If we adopt regenerative organic practices on more farms, we’ll see improvements in soil health, the well-being of animals, farmers, workers, and the climate itself.
"ROC was created because regenerative organic agriculture has the potential to address many of today’s pressing problems, including the climate crisis, factory farming, and fractured rural economies." -Elizabeth Whitlow
Why did ROA choose to have ROC build on the USDA organic certification (and also recognize other certifications like Demeter Biodynamic)?
USDA Certified Organic is a reputable, important designation, and we’re grateful for the tremendous efforts made by many to grow the organic market into what it is today. ROC is not intended to replace USDA Organic but to set a new standard for what’s possible in our food and farming systems by adding additional criteria for soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. Regenerative Organic Certified builds on USDA organic, and only products that are certified under the USDA organic program are eligible to apply for ROC. We believe “regenerative” and “organic” should always go together, so we created ROC to make sure they’d always be linked.
Farms applying for ROC are encouraged to pursue other existing high-bar standards such as Demeter Biodynamic, Global Animal Partnership, and Equitable Food Initiative, among others. By holding such existing certifications, they demonstrate that they meet a portion of the ROC criteria right away. Our goal is not to duplicate efforts but to bring certification for all three areas—soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness—under one umbrella label.
"If we adopt regenerative organic practices on more farms, we’ll see improvements in soil health, the well-being of animals, farmers, workers, and the climate itself." -Elizabeth Whitlow
Can you give an overview of the ROC framework, with a focus on crop farming?
The ROC standard outlines and requires certain farming practices that fall under three pillars: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. Following the practices laid out in the standard leads to the improvement of soil organic matter and soil health over time while providing fair and just working conditions for employees and respecting the natural behavior of farm animals. The concept of continuous improvement is essentially built into the standard by increasing the requirements and awarding the certification level of Bronze, Silver, then Gold. In terms of crop farming, examples of mandatory practices related to the ROC Soil Health Pillar include:
- Minimal soil disturbance. The goal is to minimize soil disturbance as much as possible to maintain soil biology and structure, retain water, and prevent erosion and carbon loss.
- Vegetative Cover. Operations are required to cover a minimum percentage of cultivated land with living vegetative cover, mulch, or crop residues when field work is not underway. For example, at the Bronze level, the requirement is 25-50 percent coverage.
- Minimum Crop Rotation. Diverse and nitrogen-fixing cover crops drawdown carbon, return nutrients to the soil, control pests, prevent erosion, and decrease weeds.At the Bronze level, ROC requires a minimum of three crops rotated through the same area.
- Regenerative Practices. Operations engage in additional regenerative practices depending on the certification level. Some examples include adding pollinator habitat, herbaceous field borders, agroforestry, and riparian restoration.
- Soil testing. ROC requires both lab tests (every three years) and in-field tests (every year). Certification decisions are not based on soil testing results. The intention is to provide valuable qualitative and quantitative information on soil properties that influence and are influenced by ag practices.
The full ROC criteria can be viewed at RegenOrganic.org/Resources.
ROC does not allow aquaponics, hydroponics, or other soilless practices, and it also prohibits any container growing that doesn’t lead to field transplanting for the majority of a crop’s life. Why are these practices prohibited?
We believe we can heal the planet by building healthy soil and that by increasing soil organic matter over time, we will sequester more atmospheric carbon in the soil. You simply can’t build healthy soil in a container.
Can you name a few of the organic produce farms that have achieved ROC?
The Ecology Center, Sow a Heart Farm, Apricot Lane Farms, Pocono Organics, and La Realidad Fabosch SA de CV are a few that come to mind. These are all exemplary growers doing phenomenal work to feed their communities through CSAs, farmers markets, farm stands, and wholesale avenues.
Apricot Lane Farms, Moorpark, CA
"We believe we can heal the planet by building healthy soil and that by increasing soil organic matter over time, we will sequester more atmospheric carbon in the soil. You simply can’t build healthy soil in a container." -Elizabeth Whitlow
What has the response to ROC been like in the organic community (growers, wholesalers, retailers, etc.)?
It has been a very positive response, although some growers certainly aren’t excited about one more certification to jump through. We have an amazing team who is at the ready to help every grower with their application and answer their questions throughout the process. We recognize that ROC is a very aspirational standard and will take some reimagining of our current structure and system.
And what has the consumer response been like?
Consumers are SO EXCITED! Our social media followers are passionately engaged and seem to garner some sense of hope and the possibility of a better future by supporting ROC. They also seem to want to learn more about how “healthy soil = healthy food” and to support farmers and find ways to address climate change through the purchases they make. Faced with dozens of labels in the grocery aisle, consumers can look for the ROC seal and instantly feel good about what they’re buying.
Rodale Institute roller crimper mulch
What are ROA’s plans for the future?
We are setting up for a banner year as we move from four certification companies to twelve certification companies around the world. We will have over 100 trained auditors to help get out to visit more farms. We are planning to focus on ROC brand positioning later this year with an educational campaign about how healthy food will lead to a healthy planet.
Ultimately, the goal is to build a highly valued supply chain for regenerative organic products that will support farmers’ stewardship of the land. Regenerative Organic Certified and the Regenerative Organic Alliance aim to provide a clear pathway for brands and shoppers to support this type of farming.