There was lots of buzz at this year’s Natural Products Expo West about a new trend in agriculture called regenerative agriculture. The huge trade show attracts people in the natural and organic business annually. This year, a huge concern was the future of regenerative agriculture and the need for establishing certification procedures and definitions surrounding it.
With huge companies, with mostly monetary interest in the growing popularity of organics, inserting themselves into the industry and buying out organic companies, what it means to be organic has become diluted. One example of this is in the use of hydroponics. Organic foods are supposed to conserve or improve the soil and its organics. Hydroponics have nothing to do with soil.
Regenerative agriculture goal is to improve and maintain the topsoil and it’s biodiversity. One group that has been emerging at the forefront of this effort is led by Rodale Institute, which has been researching organic practices for over 60 years, Patagonia (which has been vocal and active in supporting environmental grassroots organizations) and Dr. Bronner’s (who’s creator is an environmental and social justice activist ). They launched their efforts to develop Regenerative Organic Certification at the Expo. The baseline requirement of USDA organic certification would be added to with things like worker standards and animal welfare. One panel on Regenerative Organic Certification was overflowed so greatly that people had to be turned away due to fire codes. (1)
“We had concern that the word regenerative was being used without the word organic — we thought that was a big issue,” the CEO of Patagonia, Rose Marcario, CEO of Patagonia. These ideas surfaced at last year’s panel with David Bronner, Dr. Bronner’s CEO. He said, “There’s a whole spectrum … and, unfortunately, you’ll get really weak sauce, minimal efforts being called regenerative.” (1)
While this alliance seems to come from people who genuinely care about organic farming, some are calling into question the intentions of other alliances. Annie’s, Dannon, and Ben and Jerry’s have also been working with each other on a regenerative agriculture verification system. While in many ways this is encouraging, considering these companies all owned by Big Food, are not only raising awareness and putting the importance of these practices into the mainstream (not to mention that Big Food knows it needs to get on board with demand), the fact that many of their products contain all kinds of processed and less nutritional ingredients is still a concern.
Annie’s president, Carlan Vernan, is at least correct in saying, “As part of the food industry, our biggest opportunity for impact is at the farm level, where we have a critical role to play in advancing regenerative practices that generate positive impact. At Annie’s, we recognize the urgency of this, and we are more committed than ever to champion projects, big and small, to preserve the planet for generations to come.
Through these new limited edition products and direct-farm partnerships, we are showing consumers that food choices matter and can make a positive impact on the planet.” (2)
Limited edition versions of their organic mac and cheese and Bunny Grahams will be sold at Sprouts. While they are promoting good farming practices, are mac and cheese and gram crackers good for you? There seems to be the suggestion that just because something is organic or labeled with certain buzzwords, that it’s good for you. However this is not the case. While it is encouraging that responsible growing is being promoted, just how responsible is promoting sugar-laden products with little nutritional value? Further, Ben & Jerry’s, while they are anti-GMO and pro-organic, still participates in concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO) farming. This is not good for the environment or the soil.
American Grassfed Association standards are pretty great and are a good guarantee that you will be getting a product that is made from American grown and grass fed beef or cattle. In addition to never being confined to feed lots, being fed only a foraged diet, and being clean when it comes to antibiotics and hormone treatments, the farms are guaranteed to be in the United States. Imported products might be labeled as grass fed or organic, but this does not mean they are.
Last year an audit of the USDA’s National Organic Program revealed that the Department of Agriculture’s Marketing Service had many changes to make. Products being imported as “organic” were not up to standards for a variety of reasons and the audit found many flaws in the organization’s controls and outlined ways it must change, including transparency, organic products being fumigated at entry points, and lack of proper checks of documentation on allegedly organic imports. This not only creates confusion and dilutes the organic label, but it diminishes the trust people have in buying organic foods. (3)
The next step already exists. Biodynamic farming is all organic and regenerative and takes sustainability even further. While organic farming only requires part of the farm to produce organically (and pesticides can spread between sections), biodynamic farms are 100%. Biodynamic farms get most of what they need from other parts of the farm, creating a self-sustaining ecosystem of their own. In addition, biodynamic farmers must take at least 10% of the land and devote it to boosting biodiversity.
It might be that instead of creating competition between buzzwords like regenerative farming and organic farming, we should be looking towards one of the best, if not the best, form of farming out there. Biodynamic farming is not just an environmental effort. It is ethical, spiritual, and ecological. Still, it is very exciting and encouraging to see that the world is changing its ways. As consumers it is our responsibility to choose our products wisely and be mindful of the choices we make. An organic donut is still a donut. And yes, it probably tastes better and feels more enjoyable than a Dunkin Donut, but don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s healthy for you. Conscious choices require we stay conscious.