Organic, Sustainable or Regenerative Farming

Organic, Sustainable or Regenerative Farming

The differences between organic, sustainable, and regenerative farming practices are primarily subtle and use many of the same agricultural practices. But all three are quite different from conventional agriculture which is characterized by monocropping, deep tillage, GMOs, and the use of synthetic chemicals.

Conventional agricultural practices have increased crop yields by 60 % in the last 50 Years, according to Science Daily. But at what cost to the environment? Topsoil is eroding off farmland at the rate of 4.63 tons/acre/year. With that loss of topsoil goes microorganisms and nutrients, degrading the land.

First organic, then sustainable agricultural practices were introduced to stop, and perhaps reverse, the degradation and erosion of soils. Regenerative agriculture is a relatively new farming method but its principles have been around for centuries.

Let’s compare the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, differences between these three agricultural practices.

The primary difference between organic agriculture and sustainable or regenerative farming is that organic farms are tied to the same set of rules established by the government regarding inputs and farming practices. Third party certifying organizations visit organic farms and make sure the rules are being followed.

Sustainable and regenerative agriculture are not bound by rules. A lot of overlap exists between these three farming methods. The desired end product of all their farming practices is a healthier product and healthy soil.

Organic Ag – Farm By The Rules

  In 2002, after much debate, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published the National Organic Program (NOP). According to their NOP Preamble, the purpose, or intent, of the NOP is

“To facilitate domestic and international marketing of fresh and processed food that is organically produced and assure consumers that such products meet consistent, uniform standards.”

Over the years there have been many changes to the rules, but the underlying premise is the same. If you want to sell your farm produce with the organic label you have to farm by the certification’s rules. The USDA rules are:

  • Rotate crops and use only animal waste or approved products for soil nutrition.
  • Cover crops are encouraged.
  • Tillage is allowed.
  • All inputs must be from natural substances on the pre-approved list.
  • Seeds must be organic.
  • No genetic engineering.
  • Food processing, dairy, and livestock production have their own sets of rules.

Over the years large scale commodity crop farmers have adopted organic farming practices. That has meant thousand-acre corn, soybean, and other commodity crop farms sell under the organic label. Those farms are farmed by the rules but the goal isn’t necessarily soil health.

When you’re growing 1,000s of acres of one crop, whether you're using organic farming practices or conventional, it’s still mono-cropping or factory farming. Crop rotation on organic farms helps minimize buildup of soil pathogens but any monocrop is a beacon for insects and disease.

Organic farmers use buffer strips of native plantings to attract pollinators and beneficial insects. Buffer strips are part of an organic farmer’s Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program. Not only does IPM help keep pest populations under control, IPM also brings a great deal of biodiversity into a farm ecosystem.

On some commodity farms buffers are a very small percentage of the total acreage. Because synthetic herbicides aren’t allowed on an organic farm, there is often more tillage- therefore more erosion-to keep down weeds. A study done in 2010 by researchers at the University of Guelph found natural pesticides to be less effective than synthetic pesticides. Often an organic grower will have to spray more often, leaving residues that can affect human health.

And there’s a strong financial incentive for a farmer to use organic food production practices. Those agricultural products can sell for 2x the price of crops grown using conventional agriculture.

Even if organic farming isn’t perfect, it’s better for the environment and all consumers than using conventional farming practices.

Sustainable As A Reaction To Big Ag

In the 1950s farming became big business and The Sustainable Agriculture Movement started as a reaction to the Green Revolution. There are many voices around sustainable agriculture including Rachel Carson, Wes Jackson, and Wendell Berry. It was a reaction against the use of pesticides, animal welfare in CAFOs deemed unacceptable, and technical assistance the developed world was giving to the underdeveloped parts of the world. That assistance was in the form of hybrid seeds, large machinery, and conventional agricultural practices that weren't sustainable.

Over time sustainable farming has changed but the underlying principles have remained the same. According to the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Program, developed in 2015, sustainable agriculture is defined as:

An integrated system of plant and animal production practices that have site-specific applications that will over the long term:

  • Satisfy human food and fiber needs.
  • Enhance environmental quality and the natural resources base upon which the agriculture economy depends.
  • Make the most efficient use of nonrenewable resources and on-farm resources and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls.
  • Sustain the economic viability of farm operations
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers and society as a whole.

The USDA offers guidance for a farm or ranch to be sustainable. They suggest rotational grazing, soil conservation, stewardship of wetlands, cover crops, and integrated pest management, among other practices. Note that the “sustainability” is directed to the ability of the farmer to make a living off his farm while maintaining natural resources for future generations.

Farming is a business, after all, and a farmer has to make a profit. But not every farmer sees sustainable farming in the same way. A sustainable farmer may use organic farming practices and an organic farmer may be farming sustainably. As an informed consumer ask your farmer if he uses synthetics, or tills, or plants cover crops. You can’t always ask, but whenever possible find out how your food is grown.

Theory Vs Reality – Sustainable Or Not

In theory a farmer plants a crop, harvests it, and replaces the nutrients used. Sustainable farmers try to do this without resorting to chemical inputs. They use on-farm resources and till as little as possible, trying to mimic nature. Their goal is to retain healthy soil for next year's crops. Sustainable farming practices use crop rotation as another tool so land use continues to maintain crop yields.

But in reality, a farmer is either increasing the organic matter in his soil (regenerative) or he’s not. If not, then each year his farm will be less productive. A farmer doesn’t set out to decrease the fertility of his land. But it’s difficult to keep all the pieces in balance. And a farm ecosystem has lots of pieces. Sustainable farming is site-specific so no one set of farming practices fits all.

Climate Change And Agriculture

If a farmer is using best practices to create a positive impact in his farm ecosystem, he’s practicing sustainable agriculture. There are cover crops to keep roots in the soil year-round, few (if any) synthetic chemicals used, and a minimum of tillage. His farm will look quite different from his conventional farming neighbors.

When the neighbor uses traditional farming practices, they’re losing topsoil and causing soil degradation. They’re adding carbon dioxide to the air with every tillage and losing carbon, organic matter, and microorganisms from the soil. The soil is becoming dirt, which has to be supported by more chemical inputs every year just to maintain productivity. Traditional, or conventional farming, has been linked to climate change.

Many now think sustainable farming isn’t enough to avoid the impending climate crisis. While sustainable farming may retain soil fertility or slowly increase it, regenerative farming has the potential to increase soil quality and farm profitability at a much faster pace. Healthy soil is critical for carbon sequestration and increases the ability of our planet to survive.

Often the same management practices apply to sustainable and regenerative agriculture. The difference is in how the farmer sees his farm. A sustainable ecosystem is hard to maintain, nature is always changing and there are more factors than it is possible for us to see, or even imagine. So, sustaining is always an uphill battle. Trying to figure out what’s needed and staying one step ahead for each harvest is more difficult than looking at the long-range picture.

Organic, sustainable, and regenerative farmers all see how complex the system is. It’s how each farmer reacts to that complexity, trying to create order or allowing chaos.

Farming In Chaos – The Regenerative Way Regenerative Farming

Nature is chaotic.

There are billions of microorganisms in a teaspoon of soil. Now imagine the entire food web including the digestion of your supper. It’s pretty overwhelming when you really look at it. Regenerative agriculture looks at the whole system, taking a holistic view.

organic, sustainable or regenerative farming

The USDA has not officially defined regenerative ag, they see it as a continuation of sustainable agriculture. And in many ways, it is. Sustainable ag emphasizes improving soil health by incorporating on-farm resources and including the farmer and society as parts of the long-term solution to adequate food and fiber needs now and into the future.

Numerous studies have been conducted to determine what regenerative farming is and have found no definitive answer. Kurt Lawton, writing for The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in 2020, has defined regenerative ag as:

“A philosophy based on common principles, not a specific set of practices. These regenerative principles include re-establishing relationships between people and land, building soil health, reducing or eliminating the use of harmful chemicals, growing diverse crops, holistic and humane livestock management, innovative and efficient use of resources, and equitable labor practices.”

This definition goes beyond organic and sustainable agriculture to include the entire Community; producers, processors, and consumers. This Community isn’t only human but includes the entire natural world. It’s a philosophy that’s been borrowed from Indigenous peoples who’ve been farming in harmony with nature for centuries. Some modern-day farmers may find this too extreme.

But the common principles can be simplified into these 4 ideas:

  • Observe. Your land, livestock, wild areas, the entire watershed, your community.
  • Take action slowly. See what happens (observe) and then take action based on your observations.
  • Treat your entire Community as you’d like to be treated. We are a continuum of our soil. Would you poison yourself?
  • Educate others about the interconnections all around us.

Regenerative agriculture is about so much more than improving soil health. It’s also about building a stronger link between farmers and their communities. There is a strong social dimension to regenerative ag that is missing from organic and secondary in sustainable agriculture.

The Overlap Of Organic, Sustainable, And Regenerative Farming

The vast majority of organic farmers operate with the intent set forth when the NOP was established. The organic agricultural practices of crop rotations, using on-farm inputs whenever possible, using nonGMO seeds, and tilling only when necessary are used to improve soil fertility and increase yields.

Sustainable farmers focus more of their attention on the physical treatment of their land. No-till, cover crops, and larger buffer zones of native plant species are sustainable agricultural practices.

Regenerative farming is about more than just farming. The soil is primary and farm management practices that incorporate livestock with crops are seen as more holistic. It’s the farming practice that is the most inclusive, including both the natural food web and the human community.

Using cover crops, few (if any) synthetic inputs, crop rotation and diversity, and the least amount of soil disturbance are central to all three farming methods. Organic farmers have more restrictions on inputs to retain their organic certification.

Harmful synthetic chemicals are seen by all these farmers as detrimental to them as producers, to consumers, and to the earth.

Recently, The Rodale Institute, together with Patagonia and a group of supporting companies, introduced the Regenerative Organic label which merges two different visions of farming into one holistic approach. Organic farming has grown in market share by consumer demand. How will you, the consumer, respond to the more holistic regenerative farming approach? Time will tell.

Posted in: Soil For Humanity, Sustainable Farming

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