Moving Towards Regenerative Organic Certification

What’s Next for Sustainable Agriculture?

Beginning in 2003, Dr. Bronner’s committed to sourcing all major raw materials for its products from organic farms. It was apparent to the company’s leadership that industrial agriculture, with its unchecked use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, was doing great harm to our planet: from nitrogen and phosphorus-fueled dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico that are the result of fertilizer runoff, to colony collapse disorder in bees that is the result of the rampant use of neonicotinoid pesticides, industrial agriculture’s toll on ecosystems and wildlife is tragic in its scale and scope. Organic agriculture, which eschews use of chemicals, synthetic pesticides, GMOs and petroleum-based fertilizers, has provided a crucial alternative to the disaster of large-scale industrial agriculture.

Nearly 15 years later, the understanding of what constitutes good farming practices has come a long way. Farmers, scientists and activists are converging on the idea that organic agriculture must be not only sustainable but also regenerative: farmers must nurture the soil—the fundamental medium on which agriculture depends. The complex science of soil is advancing rapidly, and these new insights are revolutionizing our understanding of what sustainable and restorative agriculture should look like.

Healthy soils are host to an intricate web of life that includes plantroots, mycorrhizal fungi, bacteria, worms and insects. Soil is not merely dirt—an inert medium—but a dynamic living membrane. The life that thrives in the soil, once it decays, becomes soil organic matter, building up soil’s carbon content. This carbon-rich soil is able to retain more water and naturally nourish plants, helping the plants ward off pests and disease.

Regenerative organic agriculture is the idea that we must foster this rich soil ecosystem in every way possible. The methods for doing so are varied—they include minimal disturbance of the soil (conservation tillage), fertility-building cover crops, diverse crop rotations, compost and rotational grazing of farm animals. When used in combination, these methods have proven to be powerful tools not only for restoring soil fertility, but also for drawing down atmospheric carbon and sequestering it into the soil. While industrial agriculture as practiced today is one of the main drivers of greenhouse gasses and climate change, regenerative organic agriculture at global scale has the potential to sequester gigatons of carbon and mitigate climate change’s worst effects.

The Need for Regenerative Organic Standards

Regenerative organic agriculture is not exactly a new idea, although it has been greatly advanced and refined by modern research and the scientific verification of its methods. The roots of regenerative organic lie both in traditional agricultural methods around the world, as well as the original ideas of organic pioneers such as Sir Albert Howard, J.I. Rodale and Rudolf Steiner. Both traditional societies and these organic pioneers recognized that sustainable agricultural techniques depended on achieving a healthy balance between animals, plants and soil.

Seasonal agricultural field workers cut and package lettuce, directly in the fields of Salinas Valley in California.

As the organic agriculture movement gained traction in the 20th century, some of its proponents also saw the need to include worker and farmer rights as part of a holistic agricultural system. These pioneers saw that it would be fruitless to grow healthy food and maintain healthy ecosystems if the people working the soil and growing the food were not being treated justly in the process. Segments of the organic movement still hold that organic farming should be as much about protecting farmworker health and maintaining thriving rural communities as it is about growing healthy foods.

These organic pioneers, and the generation of farmers who now follow in their footsteps, set the bar for holistic regenerative organic agriculture.  But as the rules of organic farming became codified and as governments around the world began adopting standards by which farmers could certify their crops as organic, many of these original ideas fell by the wayside in order to implement a simpler, narrower standard. Buidling soil health, so integral to the original intent, is not practiced and enforced as it should on many farms. These farms often import fertility into farm soil from external factory farm manure, instead of building fertility holistically on the farm in a closed-loop cycle via regenerative methods.

Meaningful labor regulations were also left out: large agricultural corporations wanted to use the new organic certifications to their benefit but did not want to improve poverty wages nor unsafe conditions in the migrant agricultural labor system. While fair trade standards rose up to try to fill the labor justice gap that was left by the organic certifications, it meant that these two facets of what makes a healthy farming community were now fragmented.

The lives of farm animals were improved by organic standards, but not nearly enough. Organic meat and dairy has come to mean mostly that the farm animals are consuming organic feed—not that animals were raised on pasture. Overall, animals raised on organic farms fare much better than those raised on conventional farms, though the conditions in which they are raised and slaughtered are still not necessarily humane, and organic standards require only a minimum of space and outdoor time for these animals.

High-bar Regenerative Organic Certified standards that include soil health, farmworker justice and animal welfare, will not only fill in the gaps left behind by organic certification, but will also help codify practices within the regenerative organic movement itself. It is our belief that regenerative agriculture should absolutely include and build on organic agriculture as a baseline. We are joined in this position by our allies in crafting Regenerative Organic Certified standards, including Rodale Institute, Fair World Project, Compassion in World Farming and Patagonia. Regenerative organic agriculture is a chance to reclaim the original intent and foundation of organic agriculture, and is not merely meant to replace it. Organic certifications, with their focus on minimizing synthetic inputs are still crucially important: we do not need to be spraying these poisons into our air or polluting our waterways with them.

The Three Pillars of the Regenerative Organic Standard

Working together with Rodale Institute, Patagonia, and several other non-profits, businesses and activists, we have developed a standard for Regenerative Organic Certification that farmers and producers will be able to use to certify their products as regenerative organic. These standards are slated to be administered by NSF International and will initially begin with a pilot phase in 2018. The Regenerative Organic Certification standards as developed include these three pillars: Soil Health and Land Management, Animal Welfare, and Farmer and Worker Fairness.

Regenerative Organic Certification will leverage and build upon existing certifications, such as USDA Organic certification and Demeter Biodynamic certification for soil health and land management; Global Animal Partnership (GAP) and Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) for animal welfare, and Agricultural Justice Project (AJP), World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) and Fair for Life (FFL) for farmer and worker fairness.

Here are the practices outlined in each of the three pillars of the standards:

Soil Health and Land Management

Practices that certifying farmers will use to preserve soil health, soil fertility and biodiversity include:

  • Use of cover crops and diverse crop rotations (in particular, nitrogen-fixing legumes) to prevent soil erosion as well as help control weeds and pests.
  • Conservation tillage—minimally disturbing soil to maintain soil microbial communities and structure, while preventing carbon loss into the atmosphere.
  • Rotational grazing—rotating grass-fed and finished cattle through pasture in paddocks so that pasture is allowed plenty of rest between grazing and ruminants can fertilize fields with their manure.
  • Self-sufficiency in achieving soil fertility through use of compost, manure, mulch and organic waste, leaving out any synthetic fertilizers.
  • No use of chemical pesticides and no deforestation.

Animal Welfare

Practices that certifying farmers will have to comply with to ensure that animal welfare standards are met include:

  • No Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), defined by the USDA as “a farm in which animals are raised in confinement that has over 1,000 animal units confined for over 45 days a year.”
  • Animals are free from hunger and thirst, given ready access to fresh water and a diet that maintains their health and vigor.
  • Animals are free from discomfort, meaning that they are provided an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
  • Animals are free from pain, injury or disease—meaning adequate disease prevention measures are implemented and proper diagnosis and treatment is provided.
  • Animals are free to express normal behaviors by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
  • Animals are free from fear and distress by ensuring that conditions, treatment and slaughtering systems avoid mental suffering, and transport distances to slaughter facilities are minimized.

Farmer and Worker Fairness

In order to be certified as regenerative organic farms will have to comply with the following labor standards:

  • No child labor
  • No forced labor
  • No abuse or sexual harassment
  • No discrimination
  • Freedom of association and right to collective bargaining
  • Living wages
  • Fair pricing for goods
  • Safe working conditions
  • Long-term commitments from buyers
  • Staff training and capacity building

How to Support Regenerative Organic Agriculture

Organic products have experienced exponential growth in the last couple of decades, a trend that has been largely consumer-driven. Because consumers have been demanding healthier food, grown with respect for the environment, companies have stepped in to provide customers with products they can trust. In much the same way, consumers can demand that brands, farmers and producers take the next big step and make their products not only organic, but regenerative organic. Consumers have the power to ensure that our planet’s future contains healthy soils and healthy communities, as well as mitigate the worst effects of runaway climate change. In the same way, consumers must choose to eat less meat, and when eating meat, to choose only pastured and humanely-raised meat, dairy and eggs from high-bar certified sources like Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, Global Animal Partnership (GAP), and Regenerative Organic Certified (when it becomes available). It is ultimately the only choice for any ethical and ecologically-minded consumer.

Author Profile
Rafi Loiederman

Rafi Loiederman is Content Editor at Dr. Bronner's, and has been using the company's products for over 20 years. He enjoys recording and performing music, is an avid hiker and naturalist, and an erstwhile linguist.

See all stories by Rafi Loiederman
  • LawrenceNeal

    If only the world would follow your lead.

  • Michelina Matarrese

    Thanks for this informative and inspiring article. What are some actions consumers can take to help to push producers and retailers in this direction?

    • Great question! As a consumer you can support farms and products that are using regenerative organic techniques. Several CSAs and ranchers are practicing regenerative organic techniques and are letting their customers know about these practices. Eventually, we hope this Regenerative Organic Certification, once on the market, will alert consumers that the product they are buying is made with regenerative organic ingredients.

  • Jennifer Field Piette

    Do you see this certification coming from a separate certification entity, or would existing organic certifiers like CCOF have the ability to certify for this standard?

    • Hi Jennifer, currently we are working with NSF as the certifying agency, although that may change. Producers will be able to leverage existing organic certifications to show that they are meeting the standard, but I believe that the Regenerative Organic Certification will be administered by a single agency. I hope this answers your question!

      • Jennifer Field Piette

        You may remember we met at the SBC event at Patagonia in SM. My co Out of the Box Collective won the B Corp prize there in 2016. What we do largely is buy from growers/makers who support regenerative ag, which is why I ask. I’m wondering if a company can somehow be certified if they aren’t a grower etc. We invest so many food dollars into this… Our largest supplier is Veritable Vegetable (also a B Corp) – maybe we should talk offline… [email protected]

        • Hi Jennifer, yes I remember! I’ll send you an email so we can continue the discussion 🙂

  • generationimmigrant2

    You are a great company for doing this & have always appreciated what products you create and how you create them. Thank you and I believe more companies will follow your lead. Fair Trade*** great.

  • David Kendall

    We are a small orchard/vegetable farm in the mountains of North Carolina focusing on growing food for farm stand, tailgate markets and specialty restaurants using organic, permaculture and some biodynamic practices. We focus on helping new farmers learn. We do not make enough money to pay “living wages” so we offer a place to live and food, and teaching/experience in exchange for reduced wages. Would we qualify if we met the other standards described above (which we do presently meet)?

    • David, as the final standards have not been published I cannot answer your question with certainty—but please stay tuned as the standards get piloted and finalized! In general, the RO standards will try to leverage existing certifications as much as possible. So showing that you have met requirements for any of the following will get you on the way to achieving RO Certification: USDA Organic, Demeter Biodynamic, Global Animal Partnership, Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, Fair for Life, Fairtrade International, Agricultural Justice Project, and multiple others.

  • Jerry Norton

    Hello I am a large scale Hemp Farmer inquiry to get certified . Best Regards Jerry Norton

  • Loving this! It would be amazing if we could bring the same standards to other countries. I’m in the UK and would be interested in being part of this.

    • Vee

      The Soil Association (UK) has had very similar standards for many many years.

  • Vee

    Here in the UK our top certification comes from the Soil Association – which is independent. How will you ensure the independence of the certification body for this initiative in the USA ?

    • Hi Vee, yes our products are certified by Soil Association in the UK! The standards will be administered by an independent certifying body (currently NSF is the agency slated to certify). Development of the standards is being spearheaded by The Rodale Institute, also an independent non-for-profit organization.

      • Vee

        Thank you – nice to know – although I have yet to see your logo on anything in the uK. And you will have to help me with what NSF stands for. I have known about Rodale for something like 50 years.

  • Kat L

    The continuous spraying in our air contaminating everything MUST stop to have healthy soil, otherwise it is all for naught.

  • Frank Holzman

    Thank you for your efforts. I have been promoting this idea for years. My non profit Recovery Eco Ag Project has worked in 7 countries and around the US. You can view our work on my bio, http://frankholzman.tripod.com/frankholzmanresume.com I have a book out, Radical Regenerative Gardening and Farming, published by Rowman and Littlefield. Our research education farm is http://www.Tierrasonrisagarden.com We are based in Georgia.

  • Rivenfae

    It would be better to get those living wages set. Then maybe it would also help unemployment rates in countries. As most people won’t work farm jobs due to fast food jobs having better wages.

    Sending out better education would help with s lot of those principals as well. Most young people have no clue where their food comes from nor it’s process. Including what does the term “fresh eggs” in a store actually means. I have had people tell me their store bought eggs were fresh because it says so on the package. Things like this need educating.

  • Selene Vega

    This is very exciting to read! I have been distressed at the deterioration of organic standards, and see this effort as a huge step forward!

  • Joel Lippert

    When we all win, we all win. I love this movement so much. Thank you all!

  • Vladimir Herrera

    Every little bit that we can do counts. By supporting initiatives like this one we are supporting an overall good for humanity.

  • Shell Ievoli

    Dr. Bronners soaps always trusted to lead the way. Caring about not just now but the future

  • Lori Flynn

    I love and have used your products for many years. I love your beliefs in fair trade and regenerative farming. Pesticides like glyphosate which mostly run off into streams and bays are the worst culprit of our dying soil and ocean life. Climate has always changed. The International Panel on Climate Change stated there has been no global warming in 20 years. The extreme weather may be due to so many entities experimenting and implementing weather modification all over the world. It has been shown that not only pesticides but EMF’s which we are polluted with are contributing to CCD. Above and beyond changing farming practices we must stop the pollution from geoengineering the planet with aluminum, barium, strontium, and sulfur which we have found to be shockingly high in many rain water analysis around the world. 5G must be stopped. Some believe all bees will be gone within 2 years of implementation of 5G. Trees are very much affected and dying worldwide from all the aforementioned. They will not take up nutrients and water if there are toxic levels of aluminum in the soil. Tree sickness and death is blamed on molds, fungi, beetles but these are opportunistic. The lack of sunshine and toxic rain predispose plants and trees to these problems. They may look ok one minute then snap off or break at the roots with a little wind. Then one can see the cores are discolored. The roots are dead. So yes, the climate is changing but I believe it is being changed and we have to stop this pollution. I am involved with these groups: Zerogeoengineering.com and Zero5G.com. for legislation in our state. Pennsylvania is one of 4 states that used to have weather modification laws that since expired. When farmers saw how destructive the illegal spraying of silver iodide (which turns into lead when it comes into contact with car exhaust) and agent orange was in Vietnam, they said hell no we don’t want that sprayed on our land. Oversight was later taken by the military. We believe that until these clandestine programs are stopped there is little hope for a healthy future of our environment.