Regenerative Organic Alliance: Growing the movement at Expo East

As Natural Products Expo East quickly approaches, Regenerative Organic Alliance Executive Director Elizabeth Whitlow shares her perspective.

Douglas Brown, Senior Retail Reporter

August 29, 2023

5 Min Read
Regenerative Organic Certified logo on a green background
Regenerative Organic Certified logo

It's been less than three years since the launch of the Regenerative Organic Alliance, the organization that manages the increasingly popular Regenerative Organic Certified program and seal. The Alliance, founded by Patagonia, Dr. Bronner's and the Rodale Institute, has served as an engine of locomotion for regenerative agriculture, a style of farming that builds soil health, bolsters the environment and can mitigate climate change factors associated with conventional farming.

Since its inception at the end of 2020, ROA Executive Director Elizabeth Whitlow has guided the organization, working to ensure program integrity, evangelize on behalf of the benefits of regenerative agriculture and shepherd new farms and brands into the ROA family. As of August, the program has converted more than 1 million acres to ROC land, partnered with more than 115 brands, and awarded the ROC seal to more than 682 products.

"The momentum we are seeing is showing this is possible," Whitlow says. "Farmers can do this. Everyone can do this. Your farm will perform better. Your animals will do better. Your people will be healthier."

Natural Products Expos, both West and East, are important for the ROA. For the upcoming Natural Products Expo East in Philadelphia, the ROA is hosting a pre-show event at ROC hemp leader Pocono Organics' facility about 90 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

Related:Three Northeastern brands that work closely with local farmers

We caught up with Whitlow to discuss Expo East and the state of the ROA today.

Regenerative agriculture was not a widely known term just five years ago. Today, however, it’s being embraced by more and more brands, and gaining buzz among consumers. The broad term includes a variety of certification and verification programs, and many stakeholders. It’s a diverse coalition. What’s your assessment of progress within the field?

Elizabeth Whitlow: We don’t have time to quibble amongst ourselves. We have to link arms and build coalitions and collaborate to make change. Little piddly moves aren’t going to make it. We just passed one million acres, but we should be at 10 million acres of ROC land. Consumers want it. In fact, not only do they want it, they demand it. So the movement is just growing and growing.

The ROA made quite a splash at Expo West this year, and now you are headed to Expo East in September. Why does the ROA commit to Expos?

EW: Expos are where all of the brands want to be. It’s the place to go, where you have access to buyers. Regenerative was everywhere at Expo West this year—we had a strong presence, and others did too.

Related:Regenerative agriculture leaders explore movement's future

Do important conversations and collaborations happen at Expos?

EW: Yes. For example, there was a whole conversation about whether regenerative should be verified or certified, or if brands should just do their own checklists, at West this year. At the end of the day, consumers aren’t stupid. They won’t be duped for long if there’s a lot of greenwashing. The programs that are doing good work bringing in farmers committed to regenerating their soil and growing beautiful crops will continue to be rewarded. There’s plenty of room for us all to get away from the way things have been done for so long. And the Expos are valuable opportunities for the movement’s many stakeholders to get together and talk.

What do you think about the idea of certification fatigue—that consumers have grown frustrated by the parade of seals and certifications that appear on products?

EW: When we got started, everybody said nobody wants a new certification. But they apparently do, because we can barely keep up; at this point, we have about 350 farm applicants or entities and over 115 licensed brands in our database. Keep in mind, sometimes one farm can represent 100s or 1000s of smallholder farmers from the Global South. The good news is that we are keeping up. There are pain points, but we are getting it done and serving our clients. It’s an exciting time at ROA and it’s also stressful for everybody. There are a lot of eyes on these farmers.

Why do you think regenerative agriculture is resonating with farmers, brands and consumers?

EW: The fear and dread around climate change and extreme weather events. There are so many wakeup calls every day. Pesticides kill pollinators, people and the soil. This gives people something that feels much more hopeful and solutions oriented. People need and want that, and as brands, farmers and the media engage in more and more education about regenerative agriculture, it’s striking a chord.

Is it just a U.S. thing?

EW: We are a global program, and it’s happening around the clock and around the world. I visited amazing winemakers in Austria. One of them said that by next year, he’ll be bringing 30 Austrian wineries to the program. This year, he brought five. We have a lot of interest in Italy. We are seeing multiple new farmers in Italy growing crops like tomatoes and wheat. A consortium out of Sweden want to bring us a bunch of farmers on board from Italy, because they want to make ROC branded products.

Why does regenerative agriculture matter to you?

EW: We need to be the first responders to a crisis. We are on the front lines, figuring out what can be done, moving it forward and saving the planet. These farmers and emerging brand leaders are taking the risks. The brands are investing in farmers despite this being unknown territory and they are bringing it to consumers. They are the first responders to a planetary crisis we’ve got to get out in front of.

Natural Products Expo East begins Sept. 20 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. In addition to education sessions and the trade show, New Hope debuts its Innovation Experience this year. Learn more about Expo East's agenda, exhibitors, retail buyers and registration.

Elizabeth Whitlow, Bob Quinn of Quinn Farm & Ranch, and Nova Sayers of HowGood will lead a discussion of how the natural products industry can support agricultural supply and economic resilience. The session, Sustainable Harvests: Strategies for Supply Resilience & Business Prosperity, begins at 11 am. Sept. 20.

The Regenerative Organic Association and several products carrying its certification will have booths at the Harvest Festival from 2-6 p.m. Sept. 20.

Interested in sourcing regenerative ingredients? Entrepreneurs and founders can learn more at the Natural Products Expo East workshop and panel discussion, Introduction to Regenerative: Decisions You'll Need to Make for Regenerative Sourcing, at 2 p.m. Sept. 20. Attendees will develop insights regarding agricultural practices, scaling, chain of custody and certification.

About the Author(s)

Douglas Brown

Senior Retail Reporter, New Hope Network

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