Should ‘Regenerative’ Agriculture Get Its Own Label?

Some groups want to compete with the organic label and raise the standards for eco-conscious consumers. But others worry that another label could end up sowing market confusion.


The soil at Adobe House Farm in Durango, Colorado, gets better each time the landscaping trucks, brimming with leaves from a nearby housing development, make a delivery. Linley Dixon, a farmer and soil scientist for the Cornucopia Institute, says that over the years the leaves have helped raise her soil’s organic matter from 2 percent to about 8 percent.

This is good for an obvious reason: Plants grow better in soil with high levels of organic matter. But soil fertility is a reliable indicator of something else, too: how much carbon dioxide the ground can absorb from the surrounding environment. Scientists have linked high atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide to a warming climate, so the more CO2 the soil can sequester from the air, the better. Research has also indicated carbon sequestration can replenish depleted carbon networks in soil.

Dixon practices a farming method she calls “regenerative agriculture.” She uses compost, cover crops, and tills only minimally. These practices have been around since at least the 1970s, and have often been described as organic or agroecological. But Dixon says that regenerative agriculture goes further than most organic farming, and she hopes to help bring the approach to the mainstream.

Dixon and other members of the movement have used the growing threat of climate change as their rallying cry. “There’s so much doom and gloom around climate change, so if you can come up with a solution, it’s absolutely exciting,” Dixon said. At the Cornucopia Institute, regenerative agriculture is touted as a protection for farmers against the floods and droughts that are becoming more frequent in our rapidly warming world.

Dixon and the Cornucopia Institute aren’t alone. The people behind Holistic Management International, the Carbon Underground, Green America, and the Rodale Institute are all working to make inroads to bring regenerative ag to the mainstream. In some cases, these organizations are in conversations with suppliers, regulators, and manufacturers to begin using the term as a label on food. And while it’s not clear that the market has room for another eco-label, some regenerative ag advocates appear to be pushing that agenda forward.

Seizing an Opportune Moment

Because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has oversight over the certified organic label, changes to existing rules have happened slowly. Case in point: The agency spent years working on an update to the animal welfare practices put forth in the current certification. Despite some momentum at the beginning of 2017, under the Trump administration it has been delayed several times. Similarly, while organic standards call for special attention to soil fertility, not all organic farms practice those techniques.

With a growing number of large producers transitioning some or all of their business to organic to capture the market, challenges to the label’s legitimacy have arisen, as evidenced by two scathing Washington Post investigative pieces spotlighting the USDA’s failure to regulate organic products.

Although organic sales are at a record high ($43.5 billion in 2015), the organic brand is struggling with a perception problem. A 2015 study by market research firm Mintel found that more than one-third of shoppers are skeptical that organic products are any better than conventionally grown food.

And even more are confused by alternative labels: A 2016 Consumer Reports survey found that 73 percent of consumers sought out products labeled “natural”—a label with no regulatory teeth—while only 58 percent look for organic products. This may be due in part to a 2012 Stanford meta-analysis study that found organic food is only slightly more nutritious than conventionally grown food, although the report’s methodology has drawn criticism.

“The organic certification is struggling. There are people who feel like it’s been watered down,” said Ann Adams, executive director of Holistic Management International. She also points to the fact that while less than 1 percent of farmland in the U.S. is certified organic, organic sales account for closer to 4 percent of the market. “Because we can’t produce enough of these organic products in this country, we’re importing a lot and people are looking the other way.”

And while foods grown using regenerative practices may help fill the void left by inadequate organic regulation, Adams said, it would likely be an uphill battle to convince consumers to buy them. “The number one reason people buy organic is for the health of their children,” she said, pointing out that some regenerative tenets—soil health and farmworker rights, for example—may be too abstract to win over organic customers.

But Larry Kopald, president and co-founder of the Carbon Underground, sees the climate argument as an effective marketing pitch for regenerative farming. According to its website, the Los Angeles-based nonprofit specializes in “crafting campaigns that motivate people to act,” with past clients including Honda, American Express, PepsiCo, and McDonalds. “We’d like to get to a point where we can hang a sign above the apples at the co-op that says, ‘These apples helped reverse climate change.’ The pressure that would put on the apples next to them would be immense,” Kopald said.

Carbon Underground is in the early stages of discussions with “investment and development people” to bring regenerative ag to the public consciousness. Kopald declined to give details, but said that the organization has worked with California State University, Chico and the National Co-op Association on the project and he hopes to achieve “significant scale” within five years.

Avoiding ‘Label Burnout’

One key challenge facing Kopald and other proponents is the question of certification. Should such a certification fit within the confines of the existing National Organic Program, for instance? The answer depends on whom you ask.

“Most people feel there needs to be a certification or a label to let people know the food they’re buying is making the planet healthy and reversing climate change,” Kopald said. “But there is certification burnout out there.”

Kopald’s preliminary plan sees a regenerative label being used separately from the USDA-certified organic label. But he added that those who really want to eat healthy while ensuring the planet’s health would probably want to buy both regenerative and certified organic products.

Urvashi Rangan, former executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center and a current consultant on sustainable food systems, said a regenerative product label could legitimize the movement. She stressed, however, that products would need to be undergirded by a set of “meaningful” standards.

“You want to make sure it’s not being watered down,” she said. “What we need to avoid is a bunch of regenerative claims where consumers have to decide, ‘Is that one meaningful or not?’”

Rangan said a regenerative product label “probably” will crop up in the relatively near future, and that there may be more than one—at least at first.

Improving Organic vs. Competing with It

At the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania, executive director Jeff Moyer wants to use regenerative ag to help raise the standards of the National Organic Program. The Institute is uniquely positioned to make that happen, since founder J. I. Rodale popularized the term “organic” in the 1940s and Robert Rodale began using “regenerative” in the 1980s.

“We want to be very cautious and maintain ownership of the word regenerative and link it to organic as a baseline,” Moyer said. “We’re well aware of what happened to the word ‘sustainable’—it was a buzzword and it became so watered down it became meaningless. There’s going to be a battle for words and language expressed over the next few years.” That battle could manifest itself in the form of a trademark, he said.

Moyer said Rodale is also in discussions with “specific partners” in the marketing and food industries regarding regenerative, but gave few details. A Rodale spokeswoman said, “there will be some big announcements with really well-known brands and some products that are going to be on the market.”

Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), said, “from our perspective, organic is regenerative.” Organic growing practices already facilitate carbon sequestration, she said; a forthcoming study by the OTA’s Organic Center and Northeastern University is expected to show higher levels of sequestration in organic soil than in conventional soil.

As far as the possibility of regenerative products competing for consumer dollars with organics, Batcha questioned the movement’s ability to mobilize an effective label, standards, and verification system. “Building up a private label and a standard and getting that in the marketplace in a way that breaks through with the shopper is no small task,” she said.

On a similar note, Adams of Holistic Management International doubts that federal certification for regenerative producers would be effective, and Linley Dixon of the Cornucopia Institute says that while a certification and label are feasible, she dreads the idea of a more complicated marketplace.

Before the movement can make a dent in the market, proponents need to agree on key points, said Anna Meyer, food campaigns director for Green America. “We’re all coming from a place of wanting to do things better, but if we can’t clearly specify what we’re asking for and if we’re asking for 10 different things, it really dilutes the messaging and it does more harm than good.”

For now, regenerative agriculture will be resigned to the liminal space of the agriculture world, and will remain essentially unenforceable in the marketplace until there is a meaningful standard with third-party certification. Consumers can still interact with farms directly and ask producers about their growing practices. And, regardless of the outcome, the dialogue is an important one.

“We’re starting to have these discussions,” Meyer said. “And that’s good, though those are also challenging conversations to have.”

Photo CC-licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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  1. LuMarion Conklin
    Monday, July 10th, 2017
    There is no doubt that the better the soil the better the crop. I was pleased to learn about regenerative agriculture. Labeling is so important to the consumer, and yes, many consumers are unaware that unless it say "organic" it is not.
  2. Monday, July 10th, 2017
    Great article Christopher. Organic, sustainable, etc have all lost their meaning because corporations will always look for ways to gain a label if they perceive that it will sell more or sell at a higher price. Organic was watered down by congress passing the agricultural act in 2005 and most people didn't even notice that suddenly Dole was organic and Monsanto or Heinz owned companies suddenly represented 75% of what was on health food store or food co-op shelves. The same thing would happen to any label. I toyed around with starting the "self certified" certification in 2005 because of this where a farmer actually lists off what they believe and how they act on a website that is just there as a consumer guide. In the 90s and early 2000s I would call every company that I bought from. Since I only bought from companies that did it right this was a relatively short list.
    Regenerative agriculture is very similar to what we call bioremedial in the mushroom world. I'm a mushroom person but an extremely avid gardener and my wife and myself with our 5 kids do most of our food production ourselves. We are super lucky in where we live to be surrounded by organic farmland, have the best co-op on the planet, and be able to wildcraft much of our food. Keep up the good work.
    Thanks,
    Kindle Schmidt
    • Bret
      Tuesday, August 8th, 2017
      Totally agree. What we need in agriculture is not more labels that only serve as security blankets for consumers who can't be bothered to engage their food. If you source most of your staple foods locally and buy from farmers and companies who are accessible, you don't need certification of any kind. Certifications only serve to further distance people from the food they eat.
  3. Monday, July 10th, 2017
    I don't even know where to begin...the idea that a new label or an 'enhanced' organic label, the idea that organic is too 'watered down,' and the idea that we can consume our way out of climate change -- all of these are based on a heap of ignorance. This is why I wrote Organic Revolutionary. I know that a lot of it flies in the face of 'common knowledge' about USDA organic standards and how they evolved.

    But listen up, folks, things are getting too critical to insist on purity. Even 'lowest common denominator' organic is actually helping mitigate climate change, since it ends the use of synthetic nitrogen--the number one agricultural energy hog that also raises the ante on nitrous oxide emission (a greenhouse gas 310 times as potent as CO2).

    It's true that more can be done to enforce the NOP requirement that any practice used must 'maintain or improve' soil, water, biodiversity, and other natural resources of the operation, but let me say it again -- we have a crisis situation here.

    Divvying up the organic consumer base rather than pulling together to make it better and more accessible, encouraging more 'consumers' to be producers, and a host of other really regenerative approaches is self-defeating to put it mildly.

    Please please take a look at Organic Revolutionary. I've offered Civil Eats a review copy, and the offer still stands. www.organic-revolutionary.com.
  4. Susan Futrell
    Tuesday, July 11th, 2017
    I agree with Grace Gershuny--we are not going to label ourselves forward. Rather than position regenerative in comparison to organic, we need to find a way to advance all kinds of positive practices, including organic, IPM, cover-cropping, etc etc. Organic, for better or worse, has built a market identity around substances. Some allowed, some prohibited. The positive impact of shifting away from many many agricultural toxins is substantial. Regenerative agriculture is not about substances per se, or about either/or practices, it's about ongoing adaptation and continuous improvement within a specific ecosystem, place, time, crop. It doesn't lend itself well to yes or no labels. The eating public, at least in part, is ready and capable of understanding that growing food is more complex than that. Let's lead from there!
  5. Wednesday, July 12th, 2017
    Transparency Breeds Trust (TBT) is the community counter balance to corporatization that runs on inside information or taking the competition out to reduce any comparison. Have corporate not already compromised the Organic name?? One major aim of regenerative agriculture could be to lift the mineral content in food for better human health. Nature and it's balancing ability could do it better than adding minerals from a bag provided we make available carbon in touch with the soil. In our own grassland case we use weathered humate/lignite at 20kgs ha. The weathered lignite could be the perfect compost for tea making if air bubbled and kelp, fish and silca added to broad acre spray onto excessive bacteria grasslands. The word 'regenerating' is proactive relating not only to soils but other human activities as well. Including regenerating wool use for replacing plastic contamination in the oceans.

    If we can acknowledge the catalyst effects of the Organic and Holistic International movements , and then add the biological growers, we may attract more farmers to make up to 30% of the farms under a Regenerative Agriculture banner. That would be traction!
  6. Wednesday, July 12th, 2017
    It is not sustainable to increase soil organic matter by importing it! Not with leaves, not with manure, not with compost. If you do the calculations, importing organic matter depletes a large area to improve a small area. It is only regenerative to the smaller field receiving the imported material (leaves here). The land that produced the material is degraded.
    • Dan Bensonoff
      Friday, July 21st, 2017
      That may be true in an abstract/theoretical sense but the reality is almost all farms currently import nutrients in one form or another simply because they are constantly exporting nutrients (in the form of food).

      A more realistic solution is to tap into tremendous amount of organic matter that currently ends up in the incinerator or landfill. This "waste" comes from the entirety of the production and distribution chain. If we could even divert a small percentage of that back to the farm, the need for synthetic fertilizers would decrease.
  7. Gavin
    Wednesday, July 12th, 2017
    Are we not looking for a bottom line for the whole production and distribution of a product as to whether it is soil regenerating and doesn't require shipping halfway around the world? Either way the more awareness we can raise about our absolute dependency on good soil custodianship for our survival the better!
  8. Jessica S.
    Wednesday, July 12th, 2017
    I think mainstream consumers are not ready for a “regenerative” label alongside “organic” — it just adds to the confusion of so many labels.

    At HowGood, we agree that Regenerative Agriculture is the direction we should be heading, and we need to do so without making consumers’ choices any more confusing or difficult than they already are.

    We’ve developed a system that synthesizes all 350+ labels that are out there into a simple one-word rating that answers the question, “How Good is the product for the world? ”

    Unfortunately, not enough food in the U.S. Food System is grown well enough that it would receive a “Regenerative” label. We need something that gives people immediate solutions and useful options, while raising awareness for a more regenerative agriculture of the future.
  9. Friday, July 14th, 2017
    Tough call. I would absolutely pay more for the 'regenerative' label, but I also understand the potential confusion. And I am discouraged by how unaware most people are.
    I would also happily pay 'organic' prices for produce the minute a farm switches to organic methods - just to support that transition.
  10. Martin Vandepas
    Thursday, July 20th, 2017
    "Consumers can still interact with farms directly and ask producers about their growing practices." Yeah, that's a better approach than all of this. Find ways to directly connect consumers to producers so they can be educated on the benefits and struggles of each farm. The problem small producers have with "organic" is that it's dominated by very large operations that may be doing the minimum allowed to comply with the standard. Small farms who are going way beyond the standard need a way to set them apart from organic mega-farms or foreign imports. The direct connection between farmer and customer is the only way to bridge this gap.
  11. Thursday, July 20th, 2017
    Very important article, thank you!

    The only point this article is missing is that regeneration goes well beyond agriculture. At HowGood, regeneration is considered at every level of food production, from growing to processing to company conduct. We've mapped the full spectrum of practices on our app, from the most damaging and degenerative to the most beneficial and regenerative.

    For instance, foods grown with farming practices that integrate perennial crop polycultures and growing systems that increase eco-social health receive a much higher rating than that based on extractive industrial chemicals, monocultures and heavy annual tillage.

    On one end of our labor spectrum there are companies who aim to increase the health and wellbeing of their workers with living wages and benefits, protected rights, profit-sharing, and systems of personal empowerment to better themselves and their communities. On the other end there's slave labor, highly abusive practices, low pay, and disregard for worker's rights.

    Even transportation can be regenerative if a reciprocal relationship with a producer community provides ecological and social benefits that outweigh the negative impacts of transportation.

    Our research considers over 70 different indicators, resulting in a simple one-word rating that answers the question, “How Good is the product for the world?” We realize that regeneration comes in to play at every step along the way, well beyond the field, and is fundamental to the future of our food systems, planet and communities.
  12. Thursday, July 20th, 2017
    I have written a book due to be out the beginning of 2018. The book, "Radical Regenerative Gardening and Farming" addresses these issues. I practice and teach beyond organic principles.