As regenerative agriculture becomes more of a mainstream movement, many ask:
“What’s the difference between regenerative and organic?”
While the two overlap, there are also some real differences. Here are the key distinctions as we see them.
A Fundamental Description of Organic Farming
The simplest way to understand what separates organic from regenerative is to examine what “organic” actually means. First and foremost, “organic” is a label that companies place upon foods grown in accordance with the Organic Foods Production Act. It’s the green and white seal you see on products at the grocery store, with the words “USDA Organic” on it.
The original purpose behind this label (which began in 1990, per California Certified Organic Farmers) was to establish clear nationwide standards for any foods marketed as “organic” to the public. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines organic as “a production system” which “responds to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological, and mechanical processes that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biological diversity” according to the Center For Food Safety.
Now pay attention, because while the last half of that definition might sound like regenerative agriculture…
This is where the differences start to become clear.
At its core, the “organic” label signifies that a farmer, rancher, or food processor abided by a set of federal regulations concerning how their food was made. These include various practices and substances that are allowed or prohibited. For instance, organic farmers are not allowed to use genetically engineered seeds, synthetic fertilizers, or pesticides.
However, this is the key difference –– the organic label does not paint the whole picture of whether the land your food came from is actually improving. The organic label is a set of required standards for producing food. Organic farming does not regenerate the soil of our planet’s farms and improve farm outcomes.
It was a way to assure specific standards for food sold to Americans as organic. Regenerative agriculture, as a movement, has aims focused on outcomes and ecological life.
The Principles of Regenerative Agriculture
Regenerative Agriculture is a continuous process designed to optimize farm profitability while generating maximum social and environmental contributions. A farmer who is committed to regenerative agriculture is not only complying with practice-based regulations nor primarily focusing on consumer-facing certifications
Rather, they are focused on producing outcomes –– specific improvements to the health of the soil and the overall health of the climate, soil, water, and biodiversity on their land, as well as supporting the surrounding livelihoods. The goals of a regenerative farmer include increasing the organic matter and biodiversity of their soil, making their soil more resistant to droughts and floods, capturing more carbon in the soil to fight climate variability, and decreasing the use of chemical inputs.
Unlike the regulated practices mandated for labeling food as organic…
There is no formula or step-by-step system that comprises regenerative agriculture.
One cannot follow a cookie cutter recipe to orchestrate the outcomes above. It is not a “check the box” approach in the way that qualifying for the organic label is. Since every farm has unique ecological dynamics and characteristics, farmers must take these into account in creatively applying soil health principles to the stewardship of their land.
That means farmers in the northeast, in the southwest, and in middle America can run their farms or ranches very differently –– even while following identical regenerative principles. As you might imagine, there is a much higher burden of creative and critical thinking behind the practice of regenerative agriculture.
Instead of asking “what’s the minimum I have to do to use this seal”, regenerative asks “what are all of the factors affecting whether our soil is as healthy as it can possibly be?” Mind you –– none of this is to disparage organic farmers or the intent behind the organic label.
At the time that it was introduced, organic labeling and regulations were a genuine step forward in soil health, food quality, and consumer protection. However, we maintain that regenerative agriculture goes the many extra miles that are needed to truly rebuild the planet’s soil.
The health of all humans requires food grown from the most biodiverse soil we can cultivate. This is the driving intention behind regenerative agriculture wherever and whenever it is practiced.
Learn more about Vayda’s Regenerative Agriculture approach here.