I fully support the efforts of the Rodale Institute and The Regenerative Organic Certified Label (that is the label pictured to the left) which builds on and improves the standards set by the USDA organic label by putting a strong emphasis on soil quality, animal welfare, and, most notably, on setting social fairness benchmarks that focus on the health and safety of farm workers.
OK folks, you know that I am on record as saying many times that I believe that the USDA label regulates more than it actually does, that it doesn’t go far enough, and that it is not much more than a mere gesture by the USDA to those of us concerned about our health and the health of the world we leave our children. For example, the USDA rules focus on mitigating environmental damage through the use of synthetic pesticides, sewage sludge, and genetic engineering. All of that is a good start, but I cannot help but feel that it doesn’t go far enough when it comes to ensuring healthy soil (which it doesn’t), biodiversity (which it doesn’t encourage), high animal welfare standards (which it all but ignores), and most notable of all, social fairness suggestions that deal with the impact on the health and safety of farm workers (which it absolutely ignores).
The Rodale Institute, which is spearheading the Regenerative Organic Certification label along with a coalition of farmers, scientists, nonprofits, food and garden writers (like me), and sustainably-minded companies, aims to plug the gaps in the USDA standards and address some of these long-held consumer concerns. The Regenerative Organic Certification consists of three pillars: soil health, social fairness, and animal welfare. These are topics I write about in more detail in my book, The Vegetable Imperative (also sold overseas as The Coming Food Fight).
The social fairness pillar of the new label is entirely missing from the USDA organic standards. It draws on international Fair Trade standards that protect growers in developing countries who are often exploited with harsh working conditions and meager compensation by big corporations. The Fair For Life label, which also serves as inspiration, extends Fair Trade standards to all countries, though it is not as widely recognized. However, the Regenerative Organic Certification is unique in considering human welfare a part of organic agriculture, making it as important as soil and animal welfare. Notably, the certification requires that living wages be paid to all farm workers and sets fair pricing standards.
In terms of animal welfare, the Regenerative Organic Certification looks for grass-fed and pasture raised animals, which goes further than the USDA organic rules, which only say animals must have access to the outdoors and that rudiments, like cows and sheep, must have access to pasture land during the grazing season, a minimum of 120 days a year. The new label would also prohibit concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which are massive industrialized feedlots that cram upwards of 1000 cattle into crowded, concrete quarters. Again, I address this topic more in The Vegetable Imperative.
In addition, it would adhere to the five freedoms of animal welfare as established by the ASPCA, and seek to minimize transport distances for animals that can lead to excess suffering.
When I first began writing on this issue and I learned about the Regenerative Organic Certification idea I began to discuss it with everyone I spoke to. The biggest question I got was asked in many ways but the gist of it was…
“Can this new certification make our planet and our food healthier than the established USDA Organic Label?”
To this question, in any way it was asked, I simply have to answer YES!
When we talk about sustainable farming practices, we tend to focus on its importance for the environment, for our food security, and our desire to put food on the table that is not contaminated with pesticides. Sometimes we might think about the health and safety of farm workers when we think about sustainable farming but there’s an important topic that doesn’t often get talked about and that is how food sustainability is inextricably tied to human health.
Over the past decade, physicians have increasingly recognized the importance of good nutrition to human health. An article published in The Journal of the American College of Nutrition noted that the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease is linked to long-term poor nutrition. Good nutrition, on the other hand, is one of the most powerful (and least expensive) forms of preventative healthcare you have at your disposal. A good diet can help prevent heart disease, diabetes, obesity, autoimmune and digestive disorders, and several types of cancers.
And it turns out that the best food for you, the most nutritious food, is food that comes from a sustainable food system. The foundation of a healthy diet is whole fruits and vegetables, which contain vitamins, minerals, macronutrients, and phytochemicals or phytonutrients, and compounds only found in plants, like lycopene, resveratrol, quercetin, isoflavones, anthocyathins and allicin, that are essential to our health.
Many of the compounds essential to human health are destroyed when whole fruits, vegetables, and grains are processed into shelf-stable foods. To make up for their lack of nutrition (especially vitamins), synthetic nutrients are added to processed foods. However, studies show that certain synthetic nutrients pale in comparison to natural ones, even those found in synthetic supplements, particularly when it comes to phytonutrients, vitamin E and vitamin D.
Some investigations of organic food show it to be better for you in a number of ways. The European Parliament Research Service’s Scientific Foresight Unit (boy there is a mouthful!) reviewed all of the recently published laboratory, human, agricultural, and consumer studies that looked at the impact of organic and conventional food on human health. They released their findings in December of 2016 as “Human Health Implications of Organic Food and Organic Agriculture.” They found organic offered distinct advantages over conventionally farmed produce in terms of having smaller amounts of pesticide residues, fewer antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and exposing consumers to less cadmium. Other studies have found higher amounts of healthy omega-3’s in organic meat and dairy products.
But organic produce isn’t necessarily more nutritious than conventional. According to Allen Barker, Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences at the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at University of Massachusetts Amherst, nutrient availability doesn’t fall neatly on an organic versus conventional spectrum.
“I found little or no differences, in most vegetables, between organically fertilized crops and chemically fertilized crops,” said Barker of his research on accumulated nutrients.
Healthy soil is more than just dirt, it is a living collection of microscopic creatures, minerals and bits of living material. Soil is healthy when organisms in the soil are present and doing the work they are supposed to do to support the growth of plants.
But gardening and farming that relies on heavy doses of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers destroys beneficial life in the soil, leaving plants without this important support system. This does affect nutrition. While chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides protect plants from pests and provide them with nutrients, over time they adversely affect soil life as it is unrealistic to expect a given pesticide, for example, to distinguish between harmful and beneficial insects.
“Generally, more nutrients are removed from soils by crop production than are returned back to the soil,” said Barker.
“Because synthetic fertilizers either kill or repel bacteria or don’t contain the organic bulk that natural fertilizers do, plants get fed, but soil structure doesn’t get built,” writes Jeff Lowenfels in his book Teaming with Nutrients.
Regenerative Organic farming practices return nutrients to the soil and build up organic matter, while at the same time they encourage the flourishing of micro-organisms which in turn ensure that the soil’s diverse nutrients are then taken up by plants, where they become bioavailable to humans.
While the evidence that organic food may or may not be more nutritious than conventionally grown food is still contradictory (some studies find it is, others don’t), science has shown that eating organic, as much as you can, does help protect you from the negative effects of pesticide residues, reduce your exposure to antibiotic-resistant germs, and help keep your cadmium intake down. These are all very good things. So, the next time you’re at the farmers market, ask your farmer what they are doing to build soil health. Support farmers who support healthy soil, and think about the weight of your choices. The sustainable produce in your palm isn’t just a snack, it’s an investment in your health.
And please, click the link and read the certification details here and send in your own feedback. This is an important issue and we want your input!