Organic, Sustainable, Regenerative: What’s the Difference?

Organic, Sustainable, Regenerative: What's the Difference?
Organic, Sustainable, Regenerative: What's the Difference?

The terms organic, sustainable, and regenerative can be confusing at first. All three words seem to be describing roughly the same thing.

However, each approach has a slightly different underlying philosophy. While they may share some practices, these three methods do diverge on critical issues.

Organic

The USDA regulates the term organic. Therefore, organic farming adheres to a specific set of guidelines.

Organic practitioners are not allowed to use the following:

  • Genetically modified seed.
  • Chemical herbicides.
  • Chemical pesticides.
  • Sewage sludge.
  • Growth hormones.

In many cases, organic agriculture largely resembles conventional agriculture with these modifications. Organic certification is expensive to maintain, thus eliminating many smaller operations.

Of course, there is considerable variation within the organic world. Some organic farmers raise a variety of crops and livestock, while others are more specialized. Some feed animals organic grain, while others use forage exclusively. Some organic farmers rely on organic fertilizers to feed their plants, while others make their own compost to feed the soil.

Sustainable

Sustainable agriculture focuses on a big-picture system. This system seeks to sustain three major areas:

  • Environment (soil, water, native species).
  • Community (local economy and job opportunities).
  • Family (profit and enjoyable lifestyle).

To reach these goals, most sustainable operations will adhere to organic-style practices, even if they don’t seek USDA certification.

However, sustainable farming does not resemble conventional agriculture as closely as organic does, because the focus is different. Sustainable agriculture tends to place a greater emphasis on running a low-input operation. It prioritizes stewardship practices:

  • Soil building.
  • Water conservation.
  • Habitat preservation.

Energy use also tends to be a greater focus, with sustainable farmers usually either reducing their fuel consumption or using alternative energy sources (often produced on-site). In keeping with this theme, sustainably-grown foods are typically shipped only short distances, while organics are frequently imported from other countries.

Sustainable farms tend to be more diverse than conventional farms, and can be more diverse than some organic farms, as well. Sustainable crop farmers often keep livestock to complement the operation. Even those focused solely on raising animals typically keep several different species.

Regenerative

The difference between sustainable and regenerative agriculture is subtle, but rooted in a profound ideological difference. Sustainable implies keeping something at roughly the same level, while regenerative suggests making new again.

Why is this important? Because the underlying assumption behind sustainable agriculture is that agriculture is inherently harmful and that our goal should be to minimize the damage. In contrast, regenerative agriculture suggests that agriculture can actually be beneficial to the planet, to human health, and to the economy.

Another significant difference between the two approaches is that sustainability seeks to keep things constant, without change, despite the fact that nature operates cyclically or in pulses. This means that sustainability can actually be self-defeating. Keeping things in stasis requires a tremendous amount of energy. Furthermore, sustaining something that is already depleted has little benefit. (In fact, some would even go so far as to say that sustainability is a myth; in nature, everything is constantly either regenerating or degenerating.) While in theory sustainability acknowledges the importance of profitability, this factor is often sacrificed for the sake of protecting the environment.

In contrast, regenerative agriculture seeks to work with nature to bring about greater abundance for the environment, for the community, and for the farm family. At no point does the farmer have to choose between conserving the environment or making a nice income. Allowing nature’s rhythm to work reduces the levels of inputs needed and increases land productivity.

Conclusion

While organic, sustainable, and regenerative agriculture all use similar methods, they emphasize different philosophies:

  • Organic is about meeting certification requirements.
  • Sustainable is about doing no harm.
  • Regenerative is about farming in a revitalizing manner.

Each producer comes to the table with his or her own perspective on how agriculture should work. Think for yourself! Which approach best lines up with your own vision and philosophy?