A farm-focused, third-party social and environmental certification scheme called Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) has moved into the coffee industry. Claiming to reflect regenerative agricultural practices, the first ROC-certified coffee products recently hit store shelves in the United States.
A term often ascribed to the Rodale Institute in the 1980s, regenerative agriculture may be broadly defined as agricultural practices that support sustainable environmental outcomes and promote climate resilience, supporting ecosystems as a whole as opposed to simply crop output.
The Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA), a consortium of farmers, businesspeople, scientists, and animal welfare and fair labor advocates, first established Regenerative Agricultural Certification in 2017. This year marks the first time the ROC label has been affixed to coffee bags.
First ROC-Certified Coffees
Three producer groups in Nicaragua and one in Sierra Leone represent the first wave of ROC-certified coffee growing operations.
Coffees from those groups moved through the ROC-certified Cooperativa Sacaclí in Jinotega, Nicaragua, before making their way to four coffee roasters in the California using the ROC license: Equator Coffees, Heirloom Coffee Roasters, Canyon Coffee and Groundwork Coffee.
The Groundwork coffee was imported by California-based importer Coffee Unified. All of the others were brought by way of Portland, Oregon-based importer Sustainable Harvest, and each of the roasters maintains certified Organic roasting capability.
ROA Digital Communications Lead Alyssa Pace told DCN that a minimum requirement for certification is USDA Organic certification or the National Organic Program (NOP) equivalent.
“NOP is a reputable, important designation, and we’re grateful for the tremendous efforts made by many to grow the organic market into what it is today,” Pace said. “ROC is not intended to replace NOP, but to set a new standard for what’s possible in our food and farming systems by adding additional criteria for soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness.”
ROC Certification Requirements
A pilot program in 2019 resulted in a variety of agricultural operations earning ROC certification, including a Sri Lankan coconut oil producer, a rice plantation in India, an oat producer from Saskatchewan and others. Today, the certification has been applied to more than 140 crop types.
“With coffee, there are wild swings in the price at farm gate due to specialty prices still being attached to the commodity market, [which is] ridiculous but true,” ROA Executive Director Elizabeth Whitlow told Daily Coffee News. “At least with organic, fair trade certs the farmers are getting a consistent price above cost of production, but I am still shocked that prices at the farm gate for organic and fair trade are nearly the same as when I worked in coffee 20 years ago.”
For producers, initial ROC application fees can range from US$350-$1,000 depending on the number of parcels and whether the applicant is a producer group or individual. Annual fees amount to 0.01% of total ROC crop value to farmers, and 0.02% of total ROC product revenue to brands, according to the organization.
“No other cert program has the type of buyers’ criteria we have, aimed at ensuring the brands pave the way for the farmers and that the program costs are not used to push down prices to the farmers,” said Whitlow. “Farms will need to pay the certifiers for the audit costs, but we deliberately work with NOP accredited CBs so that they can offer this as a bundled audit.”
Fee waivers are available to farms that advance the return of historically marginalized farmers to the land, or that have established educational internship programs teaching regenerative organic practices.
“All certifications cost money. If they don’t, then you have to question the process and system supporting that particular cert program,” said Whitlow. “I can think of a lot of examples of watered down, meaningless certs that end up weakening the whole movement. It is a costly endeavor to send competent, qualified auditors out to visit farms. Meaningful certs are based on rigorous standards and solid processes. They are often the best way for a farm to convey these values to the shelf and I would venture that they are the best, most cost-effective marketing money can buy.”
Currently ROC certification is held by 86 farms, while 35 brands hold licenses for ROC-certified goods. Whitlow said the certification has reached more than 90 countries.
“Ultimately, the goal is to build a highly valued supply chain for regenerative organic products that will support farmers’ stewardship of the land,” said Whitlow. “ROC and the Regenerative Organic Alliance aim to provide a clear pathway for brands and shoppers to support this type of farming with our comprehensive umbrella seal.”
[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to identify Coffee Unified and Sustainable Harvest as the importers involved in bringing the first ROC coffees to market.]
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Howard Bryman is the associate editor of Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine. He is based in Portland, Oregon.