The USDA Organic seal and Non-GMO Project butterfly are the two most recognizable certifications on food products, but those logos may be getting competition soon. Regenerative agriculture verification programs are emerging, and food companies are starting to display logos of these programs on their packaging.
Regenerative agriculture continues to grain ground in the United States and worldwide. Fifty-eight of the world’s 100 leading food companies have either made regenerative agriculture commitments or have publicly stated regenerative ag pilots or intentions, said Tina Owens, senior fellow at the Soil & Climate Alliance.
These companies see regenerative agriculture as essential to mitigating climate change and rebuilding the world’s soils. At the recent U.N. climate talks (COP27), regenerative agriculture was touted as one of the solutions to combat climate change.
But as the regenerative agriculture trend continues to grow, so does the need for a uniform definition and standards for what regenerative agriculture is. Unlike organic, regenerative agriculture has no legal definition or regulatory standard today. Such standards provide specific criteria for regenerative agriculture to producers and food brands and protect consumers from greenwashing by companies making unverified regenerative claims. “The lack of definition and misalignment around practices and what constitutes as ‘regenerative’ can create a risk of greenwashing,” the Food and Land Use Coalition found in a recent report.
Fortunately, third-party regenerative agriculture verification programs are emerging. Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) has been adopted by tens of thousands of organic farms worldwide, and the ROC logo is now seen on products made by Patagonia, Nature’s Path and Alter Eco. The Ecological Outcome Verified standard of the Savory Institute’s Land to Market program has been adopted by more than 80 brands in the food and fashion industries.
Three new regenerative agriculture standards — Soil Carbon Initiative, Certified Regenerative by A Greener World and Regenified — are starting to verify farms and food brands. The three programs share similarities, including an emphasis on building soil health, continuous improvement, and testing for positive outcomes such as better water quality and enhanced biodiversity, among others. A recent webinar by the Climate Collaborative featured these verification programs.
The Soil Carbon Initiative (SCI) focuses on rapidly scaling acres under regenerative management, starting with soil management. The program aims to deliver third-party verified outcomes of soil health, soil carbon, increased biodiversity, improved water quality, climate resiliency, and greater farm and rural prosperity.
“We measure outcomes and don’t dictate practices,” says Adam Kotin, SCI’s managing director. Unlike ROC, SCI is open to all farmers — conventional to organic. “We want to welcome people where they are, but want to see a deepening commitment to soil health and regenerative practices,” Kotin says.
SCI focuses on six management pillars: minimizing soil disturbance, maintaining living roots in the ground, maximizing diversity both above and below ground, integrating livestock, reducing synthetic inputs, and farmer learning. “We see regenerative agriculture as the implementation of these principles as ways that drive results from an environmental, economic and agronomic perspective,” Kotin says.
A key part of SCI is testing for positive soil health outcomes using the Haney Soil Test. “This provides actionable insights to the farmer for building soil health and allows us to track progress over time,” Kotin says.
SCI is being developed in collaboration with SCS Global Services, an international leader in third-party certification. A unique aspect of the SCI standard is that it focuses not just on the farm, but also the entire supply chain up to food companies. “We’re focused on acre transition and taking the full supply chain as part of our purview,” Kotin says.
SCI launched a “go-to market” pilot in 2022 with 42 farmers involving more than 100,000 acres across different crops and production systems. Another SCI pilot will be launched this year with the goal of having 10 million acres committed for SCI verification within the next three years.
An SCI logo has also been developed that food companies can display on products that are verified — which is set to start appearing on products in the second quarter of this year, Kotin says. The Quinn snack food company is among the participants in the SCI program.
Certified Regenerative, launched by independent, nonprofit certifier A Greener World (AGW), is a comprehensive program that looks to quantify and qualify regenerative agriculture, says Emily Moose, AGW executive director. “It looks at a variety of sustainability metrics — not just air, water, soil health and livestock — but also how workers are treated and buildings and infrastructure," she says. "This is meant to be a full 360-degree, complete picture of the farm.”
Some of the key features of Certified Regenerative include animal welfare requirements such as a prohibition on Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), an in-depth plan to improve biodiversity, social standards such as addressing living wages, and requirement for low- or no-till practices. A unique aspect of Certified Regenerative is that it prohibits the use of agrochemicals on crops that will be directly consumed, as well as genetically-modified crops.
Central to the program is the regenerative plan, which a farmer develops with a qualified expert of their choice. AGW’s review panel reviews and approves the plan.
AGW’s role is to help farmers be accountable to the plan and deliver the benefits of the program. “Producers have found this to be very helpful in terms of using it as a management tool and something that can be utilized on ongoing basis,” Moose says.
As with other regenerative agriculture certifications, soil health is the basis of AGW’s program. “Soil health is foundational to sustainability, and the foundation of any healthy, functioning, living system that we all depend on,” Moose says.
Biodiversity is “incredibly important” to Certified Regenerative, she continues. “It is measured on every farm in the program and ensuring that biodiversity is not only maintained but improved.”
Certified Regenerative also has a logo that food companies can display on their products. Zack’s Mighty Tortilla Chips, which are made with corn that is Certified Regenerative by AGW, now displays the logo on product packaging. A2 Milk recently announced that two of its products are now Certified Regenerative by AGW.
Regenified is a verification program founded in 2021 by Gabe Brown and Allen Williams, two pioneers in regenerative agriculture. “Both of those farmers have been in this regenerative space for two or three decades,” says Doug Peterson, chief science officer at Regenified. “Who better to start this process than them?”
Peterson says Regenified is a mark of good stewardship of the land and the earth. “We believe that if you nourish the soil, the plants, animals on it, everything flourishes including the communities, economics of rural communities, and economics of the individual farms,” he explains.
Regenified’s mission is simple. “It’s to help transition the world’s supply chain to regenerative agriculture by offering one of the most reliable standards and verification services,” Peterson says.
The Regenified “6-3-4 Verification Standard” aims to be very comprehensive, yet easy to understand, and is both practice- and outcome-based. Six stands for six pillars of regenerative agriculture: context or a farmer’s unique location, climate, and soil conditions, soil disturbance, “armoring” the soil, crop diversity, living roots in the ground, and livestock integration. Three stands for three rules of adaptive stewardship. Four ecosystem process outcomes are measured: water and mineral cycles, energy flow, and community dynamics.
Regenified is a tiered certification program based on continuous improvement. Tier one is zero to 20 percent of a farm operation enrolled in Regenified. Tier 2 is 20 percent to 40 percent of the farm, tier 3 is up to 60 percent, tier 4 is up to 80 percent, and tier 5 is up to 100 percent. In order to encourage continuous improvement, farmers cannot remain in any of the lower tiers for more than three years.
The Regenified team has verified hundreds of thousands of acres, with another 5 million acres in the pipeline, Peterson says. Products with the Regenified seal will start appearing on store shelves in the first and second quarters of this year. Star Hill Farm, the home of Maker’s Mark Distillery in Loretto, Kentucky, recently announced it had received Regenified Certification.
A version of this story was previously published in the Organic & Non-GMO Report.
Image credit: Ivan Samkov/Pexels
Ken Roseboro is editor and publisher of The Organic & Non-GMO Report, which has been the leading publication focusing on markets for organic and non-GMO foods since 2001. He is also editor and publisher of The Organic & Non-GMO Sourcebook, the world’s only “farm to fork” directory of suppliers of non-GMO and organic seeds, grains, ingredients, and food products. Ken’s articles have also appeared in leading food and agriculture publications and websites, including Civil Eats, Sustainable Food News, Acres USA, Prepared Foods, EcoWatch, Harvest Public Media and others. Ken is author of Genetically Altered Foods and Your Health and The Organic Food Handbook, both published by Basic Health Publications.