Discussing soil health, traditional farming, human welfare, and ROC™ certification principles with Elizabeth Whitlow, the Executive Director of Regenerative Organic Alliance
The Rodale Institute brought the principles of organic farming in America from 1947. Patagonia, the outdoor company that operates since 1973 and Dr. Bronner’s, the American producer of organic soap and personal care, are listed among the pioneers in the industry who are one of the founders of the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA) initiative in 2017. Eventually, the founders involved other stakeholders, including animal welfare advocates, special fairness advocates, and farmers, into the food, textile, and body care product sectors. The aim was to create a program that would envision the future of agriculture. Working with an international partner, National Sanitation Foundation (NSF), the program manager for the Regenerative Organic Certified™ (ROC™) pilot process, worked in India, Ghana, Sri Lanka, Argentina, Nicaragua, Canada, and the U.S., testing out the framework. ROC™ had about 20 pilot participants, expanding from the four certifiers they worked with during the pilot to 6-7 currently applying. Elizabeth Whitlow, the Executive Director of the ROA, speaks of soil’s influence on welfare.
The ROC™ program establishment; what purpose does the certification serve?
The demand for organic in the U.S. outstrips supply, so we import a lot of organic while only producing on 1 percent of our land; 99 percent is not organic. We import from the Global South, where this kind of industrialized agriculture model was replacing what organic was trying to protect. We have hydroponics, industrialized farming with animals, and the workers’ poor treatment. The solution that the Regenerative Organic Alliance came up with – to develop a framework that was trying to promote healthier agricultural practices. All-encompassing certification that would address soil health, land-management practices, ensure ethical and humane treatment of animals, emphasize pasture-based systems, and provide fair conditions for farmers and workers. The goal of the Regenerative Organic Alliance is to create a certification called the ROC™ that would drive more businesses to reward this kind of farming practices.
What kind of operation measurements are made to control the completion of criteria from the certified bodies?
We follow practice-based and third-party verification with well-trained auditors. Working with certifying agencies who have a National Organic Program (NOP) accreditation, the certifiers have to be NOP or EU Organic; then, we work with their trained auditors and train them further on the ROC™ principles. We want to be robust but not duplicative; we do not want farmers to go through the same thing that they went through for the organic audit, for example. There is an equivalency or gap-analysis, which allows the auditors to compare the certifications that the farms hold and eliminate questions verified by other certifications.
While speaking of organic production, many organizations are tackling the current environmental issues i.e. climate change. How is it applied to the ROC™ practices, and what studies shape the existence of such certifications?
Everybody is looking towards meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goal and also becoming carbon neutral. Agriculture has the potential to be the solution; it sequesters more carbon in the soil than in the atmosphere. By transitioning our farming practices – ‘old is new’ – we are bringing old traditional farming methods, which gives promise and potential in solving our problems.
Because of the Regenerative Organic movement, the Rodale Institute leads the way in regenerative organic field trials. They have been doing 40 years of field trials, where they have a conventional plot, organic plot, and showing the difference in what is happening. Scientists are working on this, collecting the data on soil testing requirements, looking at the soil indicators, and determining healthy soil. There is a rush to carbon trading; we are not just looking for carbon because a farmer could till the land and emit all the carbon back into the atmosphere in one year. Part of the challenge is doing these rigorous soil tests. Still, we do not want to burden the farmers, and they may not have the tools to measure deep down in the soil where the organic carbon is stored. Instead, we are looking at other indicators, and there is emergent science on looking at the soil microbiome.
Science shows that we have more living organisms in one teaspoon of soil than humans on the planet. One teaspoon of soil has over seven and a half billion living forms in it. We have only identified 15 percent of them that shows how a plant or tree root accesses the nutrients in the soil and the complex relationship in the soil’s microbiome. The same with humans; we learn that people who have a more diverse diet of food grown in healthy soil have a much healthier gut microbiome. They can manage their immune systems stronger, so their bodies prevent disease. It also has untold consequences on serotonin; our mood is dependent on what is going on in the microbiome.
You connect the health of the soil with human welfare. In what way do you see the impact of the program on people’s wellbeing?
Here in this country, a small demographic of people is obsessed with fermented food because it has probiotics. There is a rush to sell people probiotics in little capsules in the healthcare industry, but you need to eat healthy food grown in healthy soil. Also, traditional wisdom shows that people with traditional eating that have not been interrupted by the Western diet have healthier microbiomes. We can translate this into how we treat the soil; how we treat our bodies is how healthy we and ecosystems are.
We say an apple a day keeps the doctor away. A lot is happening now with the bio-nutrients availability in food that is grown in healthy soil. The skin is our largest organ, and what touches our skin and what we absorb through the skin has serious effects when you are wearing a lot of synthetic fabrics. We are looking at the health of the soil and not just the soil organic carbon. Using several different indicators that we require the farmers to do their soil samples and send off for tests, we can see these practices’ benefits over time.
Looking at other key performance indicators, we tested out 16 different KPIs throughout the pilot. We narrowed that down to 8 – three in the soil, three in the social justice component, and two in the animal welfare. We want to leap to the social pillar; at the ROC™ framework, we look at what wages people are earning. Are these living wages, or are these minimum wages continuing to force people to live in abject poverty? If we can create systems for these farmers and small-holders to raise 80 percent of our crops – acknowledging their hard work, allowing them to raise children, having access to clean water, education – we would solve many problems.
ROC™ offers three types of certification – Silver, Bronze, and Gold – depending on the level of sustainable practices involved in the production. When the certified bodies aspire to upgrade their certification from Silver to Gold, what incentive comes from ROC™?
If you continue to find ways to build and incorporate certain principles towards the Gold, your farmers, supply chains, and ecosystems will thrive. You will have improved quality of life, and everybody will benefit from that. The other part is that we will be leaning on the brands to pay a premium to the farmers who are producing Gold. We try to build this in our cost and fee structure – the brands will pay twice as much as farmers to use the ROC™ certification. When we compare how much they pay for fair trade or organic, where at 0.01 percent for farmers and 0.02 percent for brands – it is not much, we are trying to make it as accessible as we can.
Regenerative relies on not using agrochemicals, so we have many farmers and millions of non-organic, GMO corn and soy acres. We export most of it or convert it into biofuel. Farmers have to pay companies like Monsanto, who own intellectual property rights for the seeds themselves, which farmers used to save on their own. Farmers have to buy the seeds and the chemicals that Monsanto produces, which is a vicious treadmill – they need more chemicals to get the yield and make a profit.
Here in the US, we have epidemic proportions of diabetes and obesity. We need to talk about planting the heirloom varieties, growing them organically, and not being in this constant pursuit of high yield. Farmers need to buy the seeds, and they have to buy the chemicals because those seeds are dependent on those chemicals. Roundup Ready corn can be planted and sprayed around because it has been genetically modified to withstand that pesticide. The farmers keep putting the Roundup, and it kills all the other weeds, but we are creating superweeds that are tenacious and evolve more rapidly than we can make pesticides to overcome them. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is caused by excess nitrogen and runoff of fertilizer, which comes down into the Mississippi River and pollutes this entire body of water where fishers relied on it. There should be resilient systems that have all the different functioning of healthy ecosystems.
The operations should be controlled accordingly, and there should be penalties for those who commit fraud to preserve the resilient systems.
We do not have penalties, per se; they would have their certification revoked and would no longer carry the ROC™ claim. There are certain fees and penalties for committing fraud and a provision in the organic program that requires certifiers to test for residue samples and do unannounced inspections on 5 percent of their operations every year. If we see that we will need to move in that direction, we will add other types of provisions in our program to do the same thing but make it stringent.IMAGE GALLERY
The Regenerative Organic Alliance is a nonprofit organization that oversees the Regenerative Organic Certified™ (ROC™) program.
Sebastopol, California, US