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The Leading Voices in Food

E146: Organic Vs Regenerative Agriculture – What You Need to Know

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
October 19, 2021

So what does it mean for something to be considered organic, or to be considered regenerative or sustainably produced? Defining these concepts in agriculture production and in food labeling is complicated, but very important. So government defines and oversees certain terms, while other terms are generally overseen by producers, by industry experts, or even by non-governmental organizations. The politics and governance structures of labeling can be very important in how sustainably produced goods are made and marketed. In today’s podcast, we’ll speak with Dr. Samantha Mosier, political scientist on the faculty of East Carolina University, as part of our Regenerative Agriculture podcast series.

Samantha Mosier is an associate professor of political science and part of the Master of Public Administration program faculty at East Carolina University. Her research focuses on sustainable agriculture, food labeling, and local sustainability and resilience initiatives. Mosier is author of Creating Organic Standards in U.S. States: The Diffusion of State Organic Food and Agriculture Legislation and co-author of Performance Measurement in Sustainability Programs: Lessons from American Cities. Her work has also appeared in Environment and Planning C, Environmental Management, Food Policy, and Review of Policy Research. Prior to joining the faculty at ECU, Mosier was an assistant professor at Missouri State University and served on the University of Missouri Extension Council in Greene County, MO.

Interview Summary

So let’s begin with this question. Why do you believe there’s so much interest in alternative agriculture production?

So agriculture has been changing. We only have the concept of alternative agriculture because we went through a really rapid industrialization and mechanization of agricultural practices in the past 100 years or so. So this idea of alternative agriculture sprung out of a critique of agricultural production norms that were industrialized, that were causing environmental harm, like declining soil quality, which led to such events as the Dust Bowl. Today, the shift and interest into alternative agriculture stems from some pretty hard lessons learned about modern production, where we are seeing soil quality continuing to decline. Yields are also declining, and we want to be able to feed the world and our population. And so these practices that were once advocated are not necessarily working as they should. For producers, there’s also some profit to be made in a number of markets if you’re able to shift your production and get that certification in that sustainable market, or at least adhere to the norms of a particular production concept enough to make that claim.

You know, in some ways, what I hear you saying is that from a consumer point of view, many more people are becoming interested in the story of their food, where it came from, how it was produced, how animals were treated, what the labor situation was like, etc. And my perspective on this, and tell me if I’m right, is that this trend seems to be growing exponentially. There was a time not too long ago when people didn’t think about this or they didn’t know much about it, and now, boy, there’s whole generations of people care about this an awful lot. And it shows up in the way they make purchasing decisions and where they do their shopping and things. But is that right? Do you think that this trend is really increasing?

Yes, rapidly increasing. So from a consumer perspective, you can look across a range of these alternative food markets, anything from organic, non-GMO, fair trade, and you’ll see that sales across the board have exponentially increased in the past 10 to 20 years. So where there wasn’t so much of an interest or spending habit in these categories, all of a sudden it just went through the roof. And so a lot of this does come from deferring or changing consumer behavior and expectations. We know that younger consumers in particular are concerned about climate change and the environment. So they’re more likely to be environmental consumers to the degree that they can afford to do so because it is more costly often to buy these products. But there’s also this whole component that these types of foods have also become more mainstream and readily available. And so organic foods 30, 40 years ago, were really difficult to find if you were to go into a typical grocery store. Today, you can find organic, fair trade, non-GMO products in Walmart, and Target, and Kroger. Even the Dollar Tree or Dollar General stores, you can find products that are labeled as sustainable in some capacity. So they’re more readily as well.

Thanks for those comments. And I think in addition to those things, there are other signs like number of people shopping at farmer’s markets, farm-to-school programs, farm-to-childcare programs, and you can go on and on, the list is pretty long. And I think it’s pretty exciting. You know, I was thinking about this myself the other day. Not too far from where I live in Durham, North Carolina, there’s a state farmer’s market in Raleigh, which is just an absolutely wonderful, massive farmer’s market. And when I was walking through the other day, I saw a farmer selling honey. And I thought, you know, this farmer appealed to me. I hadn’t met him, I hadn’t spoken to him, but I thought, he probably works really hard and he probably cares about what he does. And that really appealed to me. And I have plenty of honey at home, so I didn’t need to buy any, but I wanted to buy it anyway. There’s just something wonderful about that kind of connection that exists. It seems to me more people are caring about the farmers in this picture too. Do you think that’s correct?

It depends on the consumer. I think in some cases, the ones that may be more informed and maybe go to farmer’s markets, they’re going to be more interested in where the food comes from. But there is a segment of consumers out there that they’ll go off of the certification label because it’s a little bit easier. Maybe they’re crunched for time, they have kids, their job’s demanding. But overall, we still like the idea that our food comes from a wholesome place.

Two terms that we’ve discussed, organic and regenerative, let’s talk about how these two things are different from one another. Most people are familiar with the term organic, if not knowing how it’s defined, but regenerative is newer on the scene.

Organic is specifically defined by government regulations and what a certification program dictates as organic. It’s a concept that is really grounded in a consumer perspective because the label creates a singular four-based minimum standard for what it means to be organic. Not all producers actually agree with the current standards for what it means to be organic and organic production. There are a number of them that are interested in going above and beyond organic standards that are currently set. And this includes concerns about animal welfare, so how we’re treating cattle and chickens in our production systems that are organic.

There are also a lot of concerns centered around hydroponic production systems being considered organic. Hydroponic is a type of production system that can’t improve soil quality because there is no soil. And this is where regenerative discussions come from. The modern regenerative movement is based out of a movement from organic production and their critiques of our current system. The Rodale Institute about 30 or 40 years ago, specifically talked about regenerative organic production. The more modern concept of regenerative is a critique about the broader concept of a sustainable food system, and the need to do more than just be sustainable. And it really engages quite a bit of concessions about soil health. The problem with, I guess, modern regenerative agriculture is that it’s not neatly defined. There’s a heavy emphasis again on that soil quality and regeneration concerns, but there’s no universal definition. It’s not universally regulated, government’s not involved with it. And so the most you can really hope for when you’re seeing this term currently is producers acting in good faith when they’re advertising their goods as being regenerative, and they can go get certified for it now. But again, you’d have to look into the details as to what that certification actually entails.

Let’s talk about the role of government in this process a little bit more. So how do you think the government has impacted the way agriculture production is occurring and market activity? And do you think there’s a benefit to having these claims certified or regulated?

So government does play a role. It legitimizes the market to some extent. It protects the term that’s being used. It provides, you know, a standard, a reference point to where we can all say this is organic, but there’s some challenges with that of course. So anytime you involve government that means you’re going to take away certain freedoms to interpret the concept the way you may want to as a producer. And so when we start getting into certification programs we know, for example, that third-party certification systems for labels and production systems are a Gold Standard. We know this, but the challenge becomes is that when you start certifying and you start regulating these markets, is that, well, the cons are consumers could still misinterpret the term because what the USDA, for example, defines as organic may not be what I, as a consumer, believe organic to be. And so kind of this image of a small happy farm with a dog doesn’t necessarily exist. Organic production, some have claimed, is really highly mechanized and it’s become large scale. And this is part of that challenge with the one-size-fits-all standard. And the baseline standard is, all of the sudden there’s a market being developed, and producers are going to adapt to that and enter it. And so a lot of people, at least with organic certification, have claimed that it became corporatized. It’s industrialized production, just in a slightly different form. But the pros are, if you’re looking for a guarantee, say you’re one of those consumers that’s really short on time and can’t go to the farmer’s market, well, it helps minimize false claims. You have a general idea of what you’re actually buying, so it’s a unified messaging signal. And you know, the semantics of course, is debatable about what it means. And for producers, this means they can receive a premium for the products they’re producing.

Has the fact that organic production in some cases is highly industrialized, has that led to greater yields? Has that brought down price?

I think it depends on who you ask. I know the pandemic has thrown some concerns in terms of sourcing and other certain certification systems that are dealing with the reckoning of ending their contracts with small scale farmers in favor of larger scale farmers. But overall, organic has perhaps gotten maybe a bit cheaper because it’s more readily accessible, but there are challenges with some companies with being able to source enough organic material to meet the demand. And so typically, you do still pay a little bit more for organic or sustainably produced, however defined, goods, but the price will always be a little bit higher than conventionally produced materials and products.

For consumers who are interested in purchasing these alternatively produced foods, what kind of challenges do they face out there in the market?

Well, they probably need to figure out what matters to them the most, and they need to do their homework about what a label means. So certified claims do come with some particular benefits. You can research very easily what that may mean, and you might not understand all the technical and scientific information, but kind of understanding the basis of what you’re looking for in an item. So, as an example, you mentioned looking for honey. I was shopping for toddler food, and I was looking on the toddler can of food, and it had USDA Organic Certification Seal. And then, right next to it, it was also advertised with a label saying it was non-GMO. The thing is, is if you know anything about USDA Organic, it doesn’t contain genetically modified ingredients to begin with. But as a consumer, which we have more or less-informed consumers, they may not know that USDA Organic means it’s non-genetically modified. So these producers, the seller of goods, also have to advertise other benefits of the product because that consumer is not aware. So it’s educating yourself and understanding what you’re buying and not getting duped by just marketing claims.


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