What’s the Difference Between Organic and Regenerative Agriculture (Or is there one?)

There is growing evidence that suggests regenerative and organic agricultural practices offer solutions to the climate issues we are currently facing. This potential has generated discussion around the best approach to harnessing and accelerating these climate benefits. While it is true that organic and regenerative have their distinctions, there is enough overlap in practices and principles that they can be used to strengthen each other. In this article, we’d like to explore the similarities and differences between regenerative and organic farming to demonstrate the value of working together to achieve the goals of producing food that is good for people and the planet. 

The Organic Ideology 

Although organic farming originated as a concept in Europe and America in the early part of the 20th century, organic agriculture first entered the Canadian agricultural scene in the 1950s, championed by Albert Howard, Rudolf Steiner, and Einfried Pfeiffer. This was during the “Green Revolution,” the era in which agrochemicals and mechanization were first taking hold in farming as a method of improving crop yields. 

At this point, organic was broken up into many different schools of thought that acted independently from one another. In the 1970s, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) was created to represent a unifying definition of the term organic, set clear standards including the four principles of organic, and avoid potential instances of fraud. This development of the term organic was reflected in Canada, in 1953 the Canadian Organic Soil Association was created to promote soil health. In the 1970s, McGill University developed the “Ecological Agriculture Projects” program, which would prove a valuable resource for organic information. 

The first certification bodies appeared in the 1980s and since then, Canada has established a set of standards and practices that farmers adhere to in order to be considered certified organic. Most people equate organic to simply not using agrochemicals, but organic was originally built upon four founding principles, as outlined on IFOAM’s website: 

In recent years, the proliferation of organic standards has led to the rise of “beyond” organic certification in the form of regenerative programs and brands as an attempt by organizations to distinguish themselves from the national standards. 

Organic Agriculture in Practice

In Canada, the ideals that organic strives for are reflected in the Canadian Organic Standards (COS). These standards include: 

  • General Practices: Covering everything from crop production, livestock production, composting and specific production requirements etc.  
  • Permitted Substance Lists: Outlining the type of chemical substances permitted on an organic farm and under what conditions they can be used. Types of substances covered include wood ash, biochar, bone meal, copper etc. 
  • Guidelines for Aquacultures: Details the specific requirements for crop or livestock production in aquacultures

These standards serve several essential functions. It protects the integrity of the organic brand in the eyes of customers and within the farming community. The standards also provide newly transitioned organic farmers with clear and tangible goals for their work and it secures a market for organic products on a national and international scale, facilitating trade and equivalencies.

When a farmer meets the organic standards, they effectively remove harmful chemicals from the environment, improving their soil health and thereby sequestering carbon in the ground to help fight against climate change. When a farmer proves that they have met these standards, they gain access to premium prices, allowing organic farmers to operate at a higher cost of production. 

Although this system is not without its challenges as the organic standards can initially be a bit confusing and the paperwork can be tedious. There is also the initial cost to consider, which can be burdensome to organic farmers even though the returns can be great and there are many financial programs available in Canada that can ease this financial burden. 

There have been countless studies examining the impacts of organic farming on the soil, the environment and the profit margins for farmers, and the results have been incredible. Not only has organic farming been able to produce crops that are comparable in yields to that of conventional farming and often prove more profitable, but organic products have a lower chemical residue and are more resistant to the extreme weather conditions caused by climate change. 

The Regenerative Agriculture Ideology

The term regenerative agriculture was coined by Robert Rodale in the 1970s, who was also a leader in the organic movement and was determined to keep organic and regenerative together as a single holistic practice. Robert and his daughter Maria penned the original seven principles of regenerative agriculture, which bare significant similarities to Organic Agriculture’s ideology:

Both ideologies share goals of reducing harm, promoting biodiversity, and practicing a holistic approach to farming that enhances as many aspects of the natural world as possible. 

Although regenerative certifications and regeneration programs are beginning to appear elsewhere in the world such as the American Greener World Regenerative Certification, Savory Hub Network, and Yale’s Regenerative Agriculture Initiative, there are currently no regulations in Canada. 

At the Organic Council of Ontario, we have just recently performed a feasibility study to gauge the public’s knowledge and interest in regenerative products in Ontario. The results showed that 96 percent of retailers would be interested in carrying regenerative labels, 86 percent of consumers would be interested in buying regenerative products, and 91 percent of farmers would be interested in applying for regenerative certification, demonstrating a general interest among both consumers and producers for regenerative standards and certification. 

As the term has gained in popularity, producers and researchers have created a variety of personalized and varying definitions of what regenerative agriculture means. These definitions include everything from soil regeneration, to community building, to cost-saving opportunities and more.

Regenerative Agriculture in Practice 

Since regenerative agriculture has no single definition, it allows farmers to begin the challenge of regeneration wherever they are at and work towards improving the ecological systems on their farms. These varying definitions reflect the complexity required to fix our food production systems and as a result, farmers may emphasize certain values more than others based on personal convictions and unique production models.

However, this freedom of interpretation comes at a price. Regenerative agriculture promotes climate-friendly agricultural solutions but since there are no formal standards, either on the world stage or in Canada, it cannot be properly enforced, meaning that regenerative farmers must be taken at their word. This lack of definition means that there is plenty of room for fraud and greenwashing. Regenerative farmers may also struggle to assess whether their efforts are having as much of an impact as they would like since assessments are available but quite expensive.

Regenerative Canada has a map of farmers across Canada who have declared themselves as regenerative, this interactive map includes the farmer’s practices and their observed results. These results include seeing increased moisture retention in the soil, reduced animal health issues, and greater biodiversity. 

The Regenerative Organic Agriculture Theory 

Current market data shows that the younger generation is more drawn to organic certification when it is paired with additional certification that demonstrates how the farmer goes above and beyond to make quality products. Regenerative agriculture is often viewed as Organic 3.0, taking the principles of organic and building on it. 

In 2017, this idea inspired a term that combines the best of both systems: Regenerative Organic Farming. In the United States, the Rodale Institute, Patagonia and Dr. Bronner’s launched a groundbreaking initiative called the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA), which also provides Regenerative Organic Certification. It represents a revolutionary standard for the production of food, textile and personal care ingredients. Certification has three different levels to it: Bronze, Silver, and Gold

Currently, Regenerative Organic Certification has three pillars. Although these pillars have already been incorporated into the original organic principles, many nations have fallen short in codifying these objectives into their national standards, for more on this topic you can check out our blog: Canada Organic vs. USDA Organic

There are three pillars of Organic Regenerative Certification:

Although the term is still relatively new, there is optimism that both organic and regenerative agriculture will rise together.

Organic Regenerative Agriculture in Practice 

Ideally, Regenerative organic will be built using the original principles of organic and regenerative, compensating for any gaps in each of their practices. For instance, regenerative agriculture does not prohibit the use of chemical inputs but organic agriculture does. Likewise, organic agriculture does not exactly measure soil health improvements over time but this is something that regenerative agriculture stresses heavily. Therefore, the two could be combined to make an effective farming practice that can address the goals of each ideology.

The Rodale Institute’s Farming System Trial conducted the very first study of its kind to prove that regenerative organic methods could draw down carbon out of the air to significantly reverse the effects of climate change and the results were impressive. The experiment demonstrated that regenerative organic farming can sequester carbon, improve the health of water systems and help crops become more resistant to climate change-related weather events like drought and flooding.

At OCO, we have examined multiple uses of the term regenerative and regenerative organic, if you’d like to see how regenerative organic certifications compares to organic farming as it is practiced in Ontario and throughout Canada, you can check out our blog: One Standard to Rule Them All, or Just Another Label?

Closing Thoughts 

The climate crisis has made it abundantly clear that the world requires a new way to produce food that rebuilds what has been lost. Although there are a plethora of regenerative and organic standards, practices and incentive programs available to farmers, they are all trying to achieve the same goal. The diversity of these programs provides the opportunity for farmers to learn a variety of different approaches to fashion a unique farming practice best suited to their farm. We believe that since the two philosophies have similar goals, it is worth considering the use of the terminology regenerative organic agriculture. 

There is still a long way to go in the struggle towards environmental and social justice but we will need both organic and regenerative schools of thought to overcome the ever-mounting challenges. Regenerative organic increases the potential for collaboration as it serves as a way to bridge the gap between two different approaches to the same goal. 

What can Regenerative Organic agriculture do for us in the grand scheme of things? Find out in our next article:

To hear more on this topic check out the 2022 Guelph Organic Conference Regenerative Organic Certification and Organic 3.0 Panel Discussion to hear a wide ranging conversation on the recently introduced Regenerative Organic Certification and what it means for the evolution of the organic sector and certification. 

This knowledge article is part of our Organic Climate Solutions campaign. Check out OCO’s Organic Climate Solutions campaign, funded in part by the Government of Canada, to learn more about how farmers can reduce the environmental impact of agriculture and be part of the climate solution.

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