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News Icon 4/4/2024

by Jenna Bensko

Navigating the Landscape of Sustainable Agriculture 

In the conversations around sustainable food production, two terms often dominate: organic farming and regenerative agriculture. While frequently used interchangeably, a closer examination reveals nuanced differences that can profoundly impact animal welfare and environmental sustainability.

Defining Organic Farming

Organic farming, governed by strict regulatory standards, focuses on minimizing synthetic inputs, promoting biodiversity, and preserving soil health. However, its primary aim is often to meet certification criteria rather than actively regenerating ecosystems. While organic practices certainly contribute to sustainability, they may fall short of addressing broader ecological concerns.

A farmer kneels down to tend to spinach in a spinach field on an organic farm.
A farmer tends to a spinach field on an organic farm, characterized by not using chemicals or pesticides.

Regarding meat products, organic farming certification ensures that livestock is raised without synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Additionally, organic standards require animals to have access to outdoor spaces and mandate strict regulations on their feed, prohibiting antibiotics and growth hormones. This labeling assures consumers that the meat they purchase comes from animals raised in conditions prioritizing natural inputs and animal welfare. While organic labeling assures certain standards, it may only partially reflect a holistic approach to sustainable meat production.

Defining Regenerative Agriculture

Regenerative agriculture represents a paradigm shift in sustainable farming practices. It transcends the limitations of organic certification by prioritizing principles aimed at restoring ecosystems, enhancing soil fertility, and building resilience against environmental challenges. Through techniques such as crop rotation, cover cropping, and holistic land management, regenerative agriculture seeks to regenerate, rather than merely sustain, natural systems.

Green cover crops on a field.
Cover crops are used on regenerative farms to keep soil moist and increase the nutrient content of the soil.

Regenerative agriculture presents a more comprehensive approach to meat production that goes beyond organic certification. For meat products labeled as regeneratively raised, consumers can expect farming practices that emphasize rotational grazing, diverse forage systems, and holistic land management techniques.

Key Distinctions:

  • Philosophy: Organic farming adheres to predefined standards and primarily works from an avoidance philosophy, whereas regenerative agriculture embodies a holistic philosophy centered on ecosystem health and resilience. While both share the goal of sustainability, regenerative agriculture takes a more proactive approach to ecological restoration.
  • Biodiversity: Organic farms promote biodiversity through the avoidance of synthetic chemicals; however, regenerative farms actively work to enhance biodiversity. Biodiversity supports natural pest management, nutrient cycling, and overall ecosystem resilience.
  • Approach to Soil: While organic farming minimizes synthetic inputs, it may not always actively regenerate soil health. Organic farming may still use tillage methods that disrupt soil structure. In contrast, regenerative agriculture employs diverse practices such as cover cropping, rotational grazing, and no-till farming to enhance soil fertility, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration. These methods build organic soil matter and retain moisture. By fostering healthy soils, regenerative practices lay the foundation for long-term agricultural resilience.
  • Impact on Animal Welfare: Regenerative agriculture places a strong emphasis on animal welfare, integrating livestock into farming systems in ways that mimic natural ecosystems. Rotational grazing, for example, allows animals to graze freely while preventing overgrazing and soil degradation. This approach not only improves the lives of livestock but also contributes to ecosystem health and resilience. Organic standards have not historically addressed animal welfare, but as of October 2023, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published new standards for organic livestock and poultry production. This included new standards on minimum outdoor space requirements, living conditions (bedding and space to lie down/turn-around), poultry stocking densities, and transportation standards.
Cattle graze a green field with blue skies above.
Rotational grazing of cattle is used on regenerative farms allowing animals to graze freely while preventing overgrazing and soil degradation.

Know Your Options

As consumers and advocates for sustainable agriculture, we have the power to influence farming practices. By supporting sustainable agriculture initiatives, we can promote approaches that prioritize the well-being of animals and the planet. Whether through choosing regeneratively or organically farmed products or advocating for policy changes, each of us plays a crucial role in shaping the future of food production.

Organic farming and regenerative agriculture represent two distinct paths towards sustainability. While organic practices provide valuable guidelines for reducing synthetic inputs and promoting biodiversity, regenerative agriculture offers a more comprehensive approach to ecological restoration and resilience. By understanding the differences between these approaches, we can make informed choices that benefit both the environment and future generations.

If you are interested in finding a regenerative farm near you, you can find a map of locations across the Unites States here. Additionally, for more information on organic farms in the United States, you can visit this resource.

Jenna Bensko smiling at the camera wearing a black Compassion in World Farming t-shirt

Jenna is a Food Business Manager with the Compassion in World Farming U.S. team. She has an M.S. in Food Science and Human Nutrition from Colorado State University and a BSc in Nutritional Sciences from Cornell University. During her graduate program, Jenna studied the social and environmental impacts of restaurant menus and the sustainability of restaurant Corporate Social Responsibility reports. She is particularly interested in improving the sustainability and equitability of food systems through system level changes.



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