Making sense of regenerative labels

Only 19% of people surveyed say they're familiar with "regenerative agriculture," according to a study

Published August 30, 2022 11:00AM (EDT)

Woman at the grocery store standing in front of products (Getty Images/d3sign)
Woman at the grocery store standing in front of products (Getty Images/d3sign)

This article originally appeared on FoodPrint.


This past February, the International Food Information Council released the results of a study on consumer awareness about regenerative agriculture. Of 1,000 people surveyed, only 19 percent said they were familiar with the term, compared with 59 percent who were familiar with "organic." Perhaps unsurprisingly, only 12 percent said they were highly likely to pay more for food raised regeneratively.

This low level of understanding about what regenerative agriculture is coincides with the arrival of "regenerative" labels on food packaging. Since each label has a different metric behind its claim, chances are high that they will only further confuse a lot of already ambivalent consumers. Begging the question: How can a general public that's largely unaware of the existence of regenerative agriculture — let alone able to parse its wide-ranging practices — be expected to seek it out when they shop? "It's like the Wild West out there," says Kari Hamerschlag, deputy director of the Food and Agriculture Program at nonprofit Friends of the Earth.

What most expert proponents of regenerative agriculture agree is essential to the term is a commitment to progressively improving soil health, in order to raise plants and animals that are also healthier. But how to do this, and what practices should be allowable, is currently a matter of debate. As vocabulary and methodology get hashed out, large corporations are rushing in to apply the term to their products, potentially watering down the meaning. "Some companies are setting a low bar by making misleading regenerative claims based on one or two practices.  Truly regenerative means meeting a comprehensive set of principles and practices," says FoodPrint chief scientist Urvashi Rangan. She and other researchers believe that regenerative needs to include a whole suite of practices: keeping soil covered at all times plus rotating a variety of crops plusnot tilling the land plus reducing chemical inputs plus including livestock, in part to replace synthetic fertilizers. Some regenerative advocates want regenerative labels to include social criteria that address inequities and injustices in the food system — something organic certification does not.

An example of a low bar might be international industrial agriculture corporation Cargill's "support" for regenerative agriculture that still allows farmers to use chemical inputs. This support largely focuses on cover cropping and also a planting method known as no-till, which doesn't rip up the soil but also might include the use of chemicals like Roundup for eradicating weeds.

Picking and choosing from among standards like this raises the hackles of Greg Gunthorp, a regenerative pastured livestock and poultry rancher in Lagrange, Indiana who remembers back to Whole Foods' decision to implement GAP sustainability ratings for meat, with "5+" meaning an animal spent its whole life on one farm with every possible comfort and ecological benefit but very few 5+-rated options available at its butcher counter. With Whole Foods now reviewing and approving regenerative claims on products sold in its store (the company did not respond to a request to elucidate its confusingly worded commitment), Gunthorp predicts a similar future for this new scheme.

Highest-standard "level 5 is going to be what all of us think of as regenerative: integrating grazing animals with no-till and row crop production, building communities and local food — they're going to have half a dozen of those" kinds of farmers, he predicts. But he thinks the vast majority of products will be "Level 1 [where you] simply have a no-till drill and a no-till corn planter and you throw some cover crops on the farm at some point, and it's going to be a big scam." He says small farmers like him are being left out of the regenerative conversation, and fears there will be no market for their superior, truly regenerative products because of the confusion the corporate capture of labeling schemes will sow.

So, how can consumers distinguish among the labels starting to appear out there? FoodPrint has added regenerative to its Food Label Guide guide, accessible here, and which can give you details on some of the basics. Following is a more in-depth analysis.

There are already two third-party certified regenerative labels appearing on supermarket shelves. The first is Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). Using standards developed in conjunction with the Rodale Institute, it's got the powerful corporate muscle of partners like Patagonia Provisions and Dr. Bronner's behind it. Hamerschlag identifies the ROC label as a gold standard of what's currently available because producers first have to be certified organic. This is a USDA-designated legal framework that ensures that consumers are getting a product that was achieved without the use of toxic pesticides, and no antibiotics or hormones were used if it's an animal product. It is also the only program that mandates biological versus chemical (synthetic) fertilizers, which are a contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. "Friends of the Earth think that it's problematic to apply a regenerative label to a product that was grown with toxic pesticides — that is not a regenerative practice," says Hamerschlag. FoodPrint's Rangan points out that "While you don't have to be certified organic to be regenerative, those who practice truly regenerative principles do apply many organic principles." In addition, ROC certification includes "social fairness" criteria like fair payments for farmers and good working conditions for farm workers. (Rodale offers a free online course for consumers who want to learn more about what ROC regenerative means.)

The Savory Institute, co-founded by Allan Savory (hailed by some as a "pioneer" of regenerative agriculture) is offering its Land to Market Verified Regenerative label, a part of its Land to Market program. Like ROC, the Land to Market Verified Regenerative label is committed to continually improving soil health; but it says it's focused on outcomes rather than practices. Fred Iutzi, director of research and commercialization at the Savanna Institute, believes this is important (although he does not endorse any labeling scheme and believes the list of outcomes must be well-chosen, rigorous and credibly administered). When discussion focusses on practices, Iutzi believes, "nobody has any incentive to do more than that." He also wishes certifications considered the utility of perennial crops (which stay in the ground for a few years at least, helping to build up soil health) over annual crops in regenerative systems.

As an outcomes-based label, products with certification come from farms that improve their soil and pasture quality, but according to FoodPrint policy and research analyst Ryan Nebeker, the Land to Market Verified Regenerative label "doesn't have many stipulations about how farms achieve that outcome." This means that consumers can have confidence about their purchase helping soil health, but they can't be certain whether it was produced without synthetic chemicals, for example.

Brand new to the marketplace is a third certification scheme, A Greener World's Certified Regenerative by AGW. This organization is considered by many to offer the highest standards in animal welfare and grassfed certifications. When it comes to regenerative, it also considers some unique metrics, like energy efficiency and on-farm biodiversity, the latter of which market outreach coordinator Katie Amos calls "one of the standout components of our approach, [with other] regenerative programs focus[ing] only on soil health, or even just organic matter." AGW mandates health and safety provisions for workers, too, including PPE, potable drinking water, and access to medical care.

Unlike the Savory Institute, AGW restricts the use of glyphosate (the active ingredient in ubiquitous weedkiller Roundup) and goes a step further in requiring farms to eliminate nitrogen fertilizer, too. Amos believes these are important steps and that a baseline of organic such as ROC mandates makes regenerative certification inaccessible for most farmers. "Less than 1 percent of US farmland is certified organic, and yet the impact and interest [for regenerative] is so much greater," she wrote in an email.

More regenerative labeling schemes will soon join these first three in the marketplace. Green America's Soil Carbon Initiative — founded by Danone North America, Ben & Jerry's, and other companies/farmers/ranchers — is currently piloting its own regenerative standards which, although strong, according to Hamerschlag, only mention "reducing synthetic inputs." Some regenerative advocates want to "reach farmers who are generally still on this chemical treadmill — and … there are initiatives out there" that favor some improvement over no improvement, Hamerschlag says, echoing some of Amos's argument. But others feel these partial certifications do more to confuse customers and greenwash low-effort moves by agribusiness. In cases like these, says Rangan, "products should make more specific claims about what they do to offer value over the conventional baseline but should not make regenerative claims."

Gabe Brown, another longtime proponent of regenerative agriculture, is partly behind another company, called Regenified, that verifies practices using 13 tiers of regenerative standards. According to a spokesperson, the first certified labels are expected to appear in early fall 2022 (and therefore do not yet appear in the FoodPrint Label Guide).

Meanwhile, many researchers are still working to quantify the benefits of regenerative practices over conventional ones. Jonathan Lundgren of the Ecdysis Foundation, for example, is aiming to tally outcomes on 1,000 farms — from conventional to organic to regenerative — over the next 10 years. "We need to know whether these things work and the only way to do that is with … full systems inventories of different farms that show okay, it produces this much carbon, it produces this much water retention, it increases [soil] life by this much, it provides us much more nutrient density."  Last summer he published a promising report comparing production systems in almonds.

Iutzi says there are currently several significant studies in process. "Once a well-designed standard system for measuring outcomes is in place, the foundation is laid for communicating to consumers the difference between food with significant but incremental environmental outcomes behind it, and food transformational outcomes behind it," he wrote in an email. "And of course, the very same outcomes measurement system is enormously useful for policymakers and for ecosystem services markets, in addition to consumer-facing labeling."

By Lela Nargi

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