Regenerative Organic Certification is 'serious risk' to USDA's organic label, says OTA

by Sustainable Food News 

December 1, 2017

Despite the post-Thanksgiving scramble by some in the natural and organic products industry to file comments by midnight Thursday, the deadline to comment on Rodale Institute's Regenerative Organic Certification has been extended until the end of the year.

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The proposed certification scheme, which encompasses guidelines for soil health and land management, animal welfare, and farmer and worker fairness, "does not aim to supplant current organic standards," said Rodale, based in Kutztown, Pa.

"Instead, this certification aims to support these standards while at the same time facilitate widespread adoption of holistic, regenerative practices throughout agriculture. It builds upon the standards set forth by USDA organic and similar programs internationally, particularly in the areas of animal welfare and farmer and worker fairness," said the organic research and outreach nonprofit.

In 2014, research by Rodale estimated that if current crop acreage and pastureland shifted to regenerative organic practices, 100 percent of annual global carbon dioxide emissions could be sequestered in the soil.

A one-month public comment period kicked off in September, with certification group NSF Internationalfacilitating the comment process. The first comment period was slated to close Oct. 13 but was extended until Nov. 30 at midnight.

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However, NSF told Sustainable Food News Friday morning that "several stakeholders requested additional time," so the deadline to comment was pushed back again until Dec. 31 at midnight.

Rodale published a supplement to the proposed ROC standard last month containing equivalency analyses showing how ROC's guideliness for soil health and land management, animal welfare, and farmer and worker fairness are met by existing standards under various certifications.

The list of certifications analyzed include:

Soil Health and Land Management

  • USDA National Organic Program
  • European Union Commission Organic Regulations
  • IFOAM Standard for Organic Production & Processing
  • Demeter Biodynamic Farm Standard
  • Naturland Standards on Production
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Animal Welfare

  • Global Animal Partnership
  • Animal Welfare Approved
  • Humane Farm Animal Care: Certified Humane

Farmer and Worker Fairness

  • Agricultural Justice Project
  • Naturland Fair Standards
  • Fair Trade USA
  • Fairtrade International
  • Small Producer Symbol
  • Fair for Life
  • Equitable Food Initiative
  • World Fair Trade Organization

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is warning that the ROC program threatens the success of the organic industry.

"The good intention of the [ROC] scheme, in fact, does present a serious risk to the success of the USDA Organic label because of the similarity and overlap between two of the three pillars - soil health and animal welfare," the trade group said in its ROC comments. "As the awareness of this standard spreads, so may the misconception that USDA organic standards do not include requirements for soil health, biodiversity and animal welfare. Although not intended, this could present an unfortunate disservice to the livelihood of the organic sector and organic farmers across America."

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General Mills, Inc., the fourth-largest producer of organic and natural foods, said in its ROC comments that while it agrees "organic is a strong foundation of regenerative principles," it has concerns about "reserving ROC eligibility for a small subset of farmers who operate less than 1 percent of farmland in the U.S."

The Minneapolis, Minn.-based (NYSE:GIS) multinational, which owns the iconic Annie's organic and natural food brand, the leading brand in its $1.1 billion natural and organic segment, also said it was concerned about the impact on consumers of another eco-label in the marketplace.

"With a growing litany of environmental and social standards for food products, we are concerned that yet another eco-label, with multiple tiers within, will further complicate the landscape of [third-party] labels for consumers," General Mills said.

That sentiment was echoed by the largest U.S. producer of organic yogurt, Stonyfield, which was sold in August to France-based Lactalis Group for $875 million.

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"At Stonyfield we routinely see how many consumers are still unclear on the meaning of organic. For instance, polling data repeatedly shows that at least some consumers find terms like 'natural' and 'non-GMO' to be more meaningful than organic," the Londonderry, N.H.-based company said in its ROC comments. "We are concerned that it will be hard for Rodale or others who use [ROC] to explain to consumers why this certification is needed without adding to this confusion."

Stonyfield also said it had "numerous questions and concerns" about ROC requirements, and "most importantly how this process will be governed and how it will intersect in the marketplace with the existing system for organic certification."

"We also believe that as a community, we all must continue to invest substantial effort in the public process we have for improving the organic standard itself. We hope this effort to launch [ROC] will not lull members of our community into thinking they no longer have to invest effort in that process."

Meanwhile, several board members of the Biodynamic Association have taken issue with the ROC's perceived lack of "reciprocity."

"For example, while Demeter Biodynamic is part of a base [ROC] standard, the farms that are Demeter certified still need to go through the same requirements as those who are not," the BDA board members said in their ROC comments. "This implies that Demeter is not as regenerative as it should be, which to us is absurd...The goal should be not to further burden those farms that are doing it right but rather to encourage those who are not yet to become regenerative."

Review and comment on the new Regenerative Organic Certification requirements here.

"After the public comment period is complete, brands, farmers, and ranchers are encouraged to embrace these practices, incorporate them into their supply chains, and create a market for Regenerative Organic Certified products," said Rodale.

Rodale said the abridged list of contributors to the creation of the Regenerative Organic Certification include:

Rodale pioneers best practices at its organic farm research center, where it receives over 15,000 visitors annually. The group provides outreach to farmers, policymakers, and the general public on animal health and behavior and trends in production using different breeds.

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