Written by Pam Sherman

Regenerative agriculture, often defined by soil health principles (see box) and valued for its potential for potential climate mitigation, proven land regeneration, and a fair wage for the farmer, has not yet had a certification of its own. But both consumers and regenerative farmers and ranchers have been pressing for it. Consumers want to buy food and fiber grown in a way that heals the land. Regenerative farmers and ranchers want consumers to know what they’re getting and how it’s done. Organic and non-GMO third parties have proven that certification can help do this. So Yes! It’s happening. And there’s more than one program. 

In this article, we’ll showcase three certification programs in this new and evolving field:  

Green America’s Soil Carbon InitiativesSoil Carbon Index, the Regenerative Organic Alliance’s Regenerative Organic Certification, and the Savory Institute’s Ecological Outcome Verification.

Which is better? In the spirit of cooperation in which they all work: it depends on what you are looking for, what’s important to you, what your purpose is. You will see ROC and EOV stamped on products in stores; you won’t see SCI. If you follow carbon markets, you’ll be seeing SCI’s verification. If ecosystem markets emerge, as some say is likely, you’ll see ROC and EOV.

That doesn’t mean products without the labels are worse, just because they are not working with these–or other–certifiers. It does means these standards are out there for producers to aspire to and for consumers to support.  Having so many certifiers, with producers and food/fiber companies eager to be certified, makes a statement: both producers and the market are not just ready, but eager for this. We may be much better off with all of them. 

Let’s look first at what they have in common and then take a quick look at each certification, as there are some striking differences in what each thinks is most important. 

Soil Health Principles

Each of the following brings multiple agro- ecological benefits:

  • Keep a living root in the soil at all times. This develops vital microbes. 
  • Minimize Soil Disturbance:
    • Keep the soil covered at all times (cover crop, ground covers, keep stubble in place, mulch, compost). This keeps precious moisture in and helps stop erosion. No bare fallows.
    • Practice No till or conservation tillage (till only when absolutely necessary.) It rips up the fungi crucial to soil health, which are not so easily regenerated here in the dry West. 
  • Eliminate or Reduce use of Biocides and Synthetic Fertilizers. Biocides (fungicides, herbicides, pesticides) kill beneficial microbes as well as pollinators. Synthetic Fertilizers when applied indiscriminately are said to discourage the growth of some beneficial plant-associated soil microbes.
  • Plant a wide diversity of crops, cover crops, and native plants to create a diverse abundance of both pollinators and beneficial microbes.
  • Integrate animals  
The “common ground” of all three programs 

All belong to the Climate Collaborative. All promote regenerative agriculture to mitigate climate change through soil health. 

They all see their work as complementing other standards and certification programs in the marketplace, not competing with them. Soil health certification can be seen as another metric with value in product marketing and access to investment capital. All seek to improve data, demonstrating the value of regenerative agriculture by measuring outcomes. They all work with large and medium-sized food companies. As well, they have good relationships with each other. Some producers, expert scientists, and companies are involved with two or all three.

That said, there are significant differences in what they think is important and therefore what they measure. 

Some regenerative agriculture certifying organizations will certify non-organic and even “conventional” farmers. So let’s clear up the most common confusion: regenerative and organic are not synonymous. It’s not accurate to conflate them. Many producers are both, but not all. On one end producers can comply with national organic standards without even a faint interest in being regenerative. On the other end, producers in the industrial-chemical system with an interest in soil and land health can work toward being regenerative. 

Yes, under certain certifications (but not others) a producer can use GMOs and gene editing, and as much tilling, synthetic fertilizer, and biocides (pesticides, fungicides, herbicides) as the soil and ecosystem can stand while still improving in measurable health indices. Why? A producer will have to use much less tilling, synthetic fertilizer and biocides under a soil health/regenerative regime than without it, so for the land, it’s seen as a net positive compared to management practices without soil health in mind. Including all producers —from industrial to organic– under the big tent of soil health is seen by many as positive at this time. 

Consumers and food-buyers can help meet their own and their organization’s standards by being aware of the different standards set by different certifying bodies. 

Let’s start with the certification program that uses the simplest measure and is most inclusive.

The Soil Carbon Index (SCI)

SCI’s focus is improving soil health and soil carbon sequestration “to mitigate or reverse climate change,” help restore ecosystem services and farmer livelihoods. They see this index as a powerful tool for policymakers, farmers, coops, brands, retailers, and others to motivate, measure, and report on climate and soil benefits and unlock capital. This index will be able to be used in the carbon trading market. From the farm, they require self-reporting and using specific indicators to measure ongoing improvement in soil health. 

They work with Danone North America, Ben and Jerry’s (Unilever), NSF International (a testing company), as well as over 150 other stakeholders—farmers, eminent scientists, companies, and others–are on their design board. Adoption by food and fiber companies is central to their success.  They work with industrial as well as organic agricultural producers.

Yet to be implemented, the index is now in the public comment  period through May 5 2020.

Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC)

Led and inspired by The Rodale Institute, the Regenerative Organic Alliance oversees the ROC process All ROC operations must be pasture-based. 

ROC’s three pillars are: Soil Health, Animal Welfare, and Social Fairness

Under Soil Health standards to improve the land they include: building soil organic matter, rotational grazing, as well as the standard cover crops, crop rotations, and promoting biodiversity. No GMOs or gene editing, NO soilless systems–that means no aquaponics or other hydroponic systems, as they don’t build soil, and no potted plants–and NO synthetic inputs. 

Under Animal Welfare standards they stipulate the Five Freedoms: freedom from discomfort, fear and distress, hunger, pain, injury or disease, and freedom to express normal behavior. Also included: animals must be grass-fed/pasture-raised, No CAFO’s (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations); there must be appropriate shelter and they must be transported by vehicle as little as possible. Animal welfare certification is required.

Social Fairness requirements are: fair payment to farmers, freedom of association, fair living wages, no forced labor, no human trafficking, yes to long-term commitments, workers must be free to organize democratically, worker capacity must be increased through training and experience, negotiations and processes must be transparent, there must be accountability…and more.  

ROC’s pilot projects are world-wide and feature a range of commodities. Products will carry the “Regenerative Organic Certified” seal. Farms and companies going through their rigorous pilot program at this time include Apricot Lane Farms (of Biggest Little Farm movie fame), Dr. Bronner’s, The Audubon Society, Guayaki Yerba Mate, Horizon Dairy, Patagonia, Nature’s Path, and others. 

Ecological Outcome Verification

Headquartered in Boulder, the Savory Institute’s mission is “facilitating the large-scale restoration of the world’s grasslands.” Perennial grasslands are one of the planet’s premier carbon sinks. With carbon-storing roots that can go down as deep as 30 feet or more (in tallgrass prairies, which are mostly endangered), all that carbon stays safely in the earth if the soil is not ripped up or degraded. 

Much of the world’s grassland is degraded, if not destroyed, hence Savory’s mission. To date, they have improved over 20 million acres on 6 continents. Savvy planned grazing management of cows, sheep, goats, and other ruminants is the main strategy that has led to this accomplishment.

In partnership with General Mills’ Epic brand, the Savory Institute was able to show that for every pound of beef managed correctly, 3.5 pounds of C were drawn down. That included off-farm emissions as well as what was sequestered. 

Nudged by both producers and retail companies, the Savory Institute formed a consortium with the Nature Conservancy, Michigan State University, Texas A & M, and the University of Sydney and others to develop ways to measure ecosystem health across a spectrum of different attributes across the world.

The result is their certification, Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV). Its pillars are Soil Health, Biodiversity, and Ecosystem Function. 

EOV measures the health of the mineral cycle, the water cycle, energy flow through the system, and community dynamics.  

EOV captures the correlations among and between these cycles so the resulting data set is larger and more complex than many other measurement systems. This data set, called the Ecological Health Index, gives farmers more information about land trends and thus the ability to make better management decisions, calling on more of their own creativity in so doing. Carbon is a component of this, of course, but it’s not the entire thing.  

EOV certifies the ecosystem health on which Beef, Dairy, Wool, and Leather products were grown. EOV rolled out their pilot program two years ago. At this time they are working with (in addition to General Foods’ Epic) Eileen Fisher brand, Applegate (Hormel), Zuke’s (Purina/Nestle), and others. 

What happens to the beef, dairy, wool, or leather once it leaves the farm and travels up the supply chain is not certified. Just the raw materials’ life source, the land. EOV is hoping to work with cropland in the future in addition to animal products.  

As each of these certifications unrolls and meets the market to a greater extent, consumer feedback will be crucial on how they develop. 

Pam Sherman works with 350CO’s Regenerative Agriculture and Local Food Systems Committee and writes on regen ag, gardening, and ecosystem health and restoration.