The pandemic turbocharged many trends that were already underway when the coronavirus struck the U.S. early last year. One of them was consumer demand for food labeled “organic,” as shuttered restaurants and lockdowns forced many to see the contents of their refrigerator in a new light.
Indeed, 2020 sales of organic produce grew by 14.2%. In the first quarter of this year, organic food sales rose by 9.3% over the same period in 2020, topping $2.2 billion as shoppers sought to avoid the taint of artificial additives, fertilizers and pesticides.
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“Some of the surge we’ve seen in organic sales in the pandemic has been because of the perception of safety,” said Melanie Bartelme, global food analyst at Mintel, a market research firm.
The willingness to pay a premium for healthier food has always been a marketing point for the “organic” brand, and a big reason businesses stretch its meaning to the breaking point, labeling products “organic” when they aren’t. But as lucrative as the sector has become, there’s a more rarefied label the industry can aspire to, one encompassing organic while introducing the promise of climate benefits to the supermarket aisle.
It’s called “regenerative,” and it may very well become the next “organic.”
Regenerative agriculture has been around for centuries, as indigenous communities managed soil health to maintain biodiversity and protect local ecosystems. The farming strategy gained fresh attention in the 1980s, when the nonprofit Rodale Institute began championing the technique. In 2018, the group coined the term “regenerative organic” along with a certification system overseen by the Regenerative Organic Alliance.
Regenerative farming relies on crop rotation and leaving the ground as undisturbed as possible. Cash crops are alternated with cover crops, like alfalfa and peas. Roots are left in the ground as cover is cut or consumed by grazing animals, who add natural fertilizer. The vegetation suppresses weed growth as it turns to mulch, allowing the soil to retain nutrients usually depleted by traditional farming.
The result is a great way to grow food with less energy, less water, and no chemical fertilizers. And more importantly, it keeps carbon dioxide locked up in the soil and out of an already warming atmosphere.
A survey by IBM’s Institute for Business Value found almost six in 10 consumers said they are willing to change shopping habits to reduce environmental impact. More than seven in 10 said they would pay a 35% premium for brands that help them do it. So it should come as no surprise that companies with products from sunflower oil to snacks to even whiskey have jumped on the regenerative bandwagon. (And it’s not just about food.)
The process is expensive, since farmers who embrace it must limit or forego cash crops. That cost will be passed along to consumers, market analysts said. But if the IBM study is borne out in the checkout aisle, then that shouldn’t be a problem.
“The challenge for regenerative agriculture or any other agriculture where people want to be more socially responsible is to cover the costs,” said Daniel Sumner, professor of agricultural economics at the University of California at Davis. “There are only two ways: to have customers who are willing to pay, or some collective action or government program that requires all of your competitors to do the same thing.”
Scott Park, 71, has been farming for more than 35 years. His business, Park Organics, was certified by the California Certified Organic Farmers back in the 1990s. Since 2007, he’s employed regenerative techniques on 1,350 acres of land located in the state’s Central Valley. But it was in 2019 when he was approached by Matthieu Kohlmeyer, founder of La Tourangelle oils, that he sensed the tide really turning.
The specialty oil company based in Berkeley, California, which sells items like avocado oil in supermarkets and natural food stores, asked Park to grow 32 acres of sunflowers to produce sunflower oil. “He said, ‘I’m willing to pay more if it’s going to be regenerative,’” said Park.
Kohlmeyer’s conventional oils originally came from the Midwest, but he couldn’t find farmers willing to take the extra steps necessary for regenerative farming. “Consumers want perfection, but farmers want commodity,” he said. For Park, growing sunflowers made crop rotation more profitable, since the plants are both different from his normal crops and leave a lot of biomass.
Sunflowers also promote fungal mycorrhiza—an essential part of the soil microbiome that has potential carryover into subsequent crops, like the organic tomatoes, rice, corn, wheat, and dry beans Park also grows.
Park harvested the first crop of sunflowers last fall. This year, La Tourangelle began shipping bottles of sunflower oil, which can be used in salad dressing or for cooking. At the base of his bottles is a small organic logo, but at the top, the word “Regenerative” floats inside a green banner. And with that, comes an almost 50% markup: Each 16.9 ounce bottle costs $9.99, whereas plain organic sunflower oil from Europe is $6.99.
A 2020 report by the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business found sales of sustainably-marketed products have been growing more than seven times faster than conventional items. Sales of cooking oil were $3.8 billion for the year ending January 2021—a 22% increase over the previous year, according to Nielsen. Of that number, $375 million was organic. While regenerative-branded food products are too new for reliable data, the report indicates consumers show a strong preference for such products—and a willingness to pay for them.
But Mintel’s Bartelme said companies contemplating the regenerative space face a unique challenge: educating consumers on what the term means, and then proving their product meets the criteria.
General Mills, which owns the Annie’s organic brand, is one of the first major food industry companies to nod toward regenerative farming, with call-outs to soil and root health on its organic Mac & Cheese boxes. The company said it’s participating in a regenerative oat pilot program on 16,000 organic acres in North Dakota, as well as Saskatchewan and Manitoba in Canada. It has pledged to support regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres by 2030—though Professor Sumner notes that’s only 0.11% of U.S. farmland. (Pepsi just made a similar promise.)
With the increasingly catastrophic effects of climate change, more consumers want to feel as if they are doing their part to slow global warming.
But with no federal requirements governing claims of “regenerative farming,” it’s up to the nascent sector to regulate itself. A nonprofit called the Savory Institute said it monitors farms and ranches, looking annually at above-ground components like percentage of bare ground, plant species composition and soil compaction. Every five years, the group assesses organic carbon content in the soil, microbiology and water infiltration rate.
Then there’s Regenerative Organic Certified, a nonprofit founded by The Rodale Institute, food company Patagonia Provisions and soap seller Dr. Bronner’s. In 2019, ROC ran a pilot certification program: Of the 19 farms that applied, 15 received approval. It officially began offering certifications in January.
The biggest company promoting ROC is Patagonia Provisions, which has been building a marketplace for organic and regenerative products since 2013. Patagonia Provisions started as a directive from Yves Chouinard, the founder of outerwear giant Patagonia.
“The task was, ‘What would a food company look like for Patagonia?’” said Birgit Cameron, the head of Patagonia Provisions who almost single-handedly ran the unit during its first years. Cameron hopes that by backing farmers and supply chains, Patagonia can fuel demand for regenerative products in the wider marketplace.
One sector not often associated with organic, let alone regenerative, is spirits. Matt Hoffman, the CEO of Westland Distillery (owned by Rémy Cointreau) wanted to find a way around using commercial malted barley. Located in northwest Washington State, Hoffman worked with Skagit Valley Malting to find farmers willing to grow a specific kind of barley—in this case a variety called Alba. It cost Hoffman about two to three times more.
Six years later, Colere, the name for Westland’s regenerative whiskey, is ready to be released. At $150 a bottle, he produced only 250 cases.
Another regenerative entrepreneur, Emily Griffith, is the founder of Lil Bucks, a snack company based in Chicago. Started in 2018, the buckwheat snack-maker (think granola meets birdseed) is trying to build a market for regenerative buckwheat.
Initially, she bought from Russia and China, buckwheat’s biggest producers and consumers. In early 2020, she transitioned to a U.S. mill that bought from local farmers in Minnesota and North Dakota. Soon, Lil Bucks was sourcing 41,000 pounds of organic American buckwheat. This year, Griffith said she hopes to buy 110,000 pounds. Lil Bucks is on track to see to its first $1 million in sales this year, she said.
The farms Griffith work with are certified organic, but not certified regenerative organic, although she contends they use regenerative techniques. Griffith is working with her farmers to start the ROC certification process, she said.
But still, when it comes to branding, Griffith finds herself running into the problem Bartelme warned of: explaining to consumers why they should buy her products.
“How do we educate that this is better for the soil, which equals better food for you?” Griffith said.