Growing Above and Beyond Organic

Farming: In this week’s newsletter, we are addressing the most common question we receive: What is the difference between organic and regenerative farming? Since 2000, the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program (NOP) has offered growers the option to have their goods Organic Certified. In doing so, the NOP has paved the way for a food revolution predicated upon transparency and integrity. Meanwhile, The ecosystems on which all living species depend continue to deteriorate faster than ever before. Thus, striving for purity and sustainability in agriculture is no longer enough. For this reason, regenerative agriculture, which goes above and beyond organic practices to create positive ecological outcomes, has become the new “gold standard” for sustainable farming. 

In recent years, critics have begun to view the NOP as less of a health or welfare standard and more of a marketing scheme. To make the transition to organic, farmers pay steep fees to audit their land while simultaneously adapting to production methods that ban synthetic inputs, growth hormones, genetically modified organisms, and antibiotics. The organic label cannot be applied until these criteria have been followed for three years. Despite the market demand for organic products swelling to more than $50 billion in 2019, a meager 1.3 percent of US cropland and pastures is dedicated to organic production. The disparity between supply and demand forces the US to import more than 50 percent of its organic commodity grains from foreign countries – e.g., Romania, Turkey, and India. 

The USDA’s organic policies are also vague when it comes to animal welfare conditions. Organic farmers are supposed to allow livestock to graze on open pastures for at least 120 days a year. Unfortunately, loopholes exist that allow farmers to feed animals commodity corn in confinement – as long as the corn is certified organic. To make matters worse, in March of 2018, the Trump administration withdrew regulations that required higher production standards for organic livestock and poultry – enabling milk, eggs, and chicken to be marketed as organic, even when derived from factory-farmed animals. 

Disclaimer, regenerative agriculture has no universal definition, which isn’t such a bad thing. In the absence of an expensive certification, regenerative farming is a free toolkit that encourages growers to work in partnership with nature to enhance biodiversity, enrich topsoil, improve ecosystem services, and increase economic resilience in farming communities. This agricultural framework includes but is not limited to: 

If the current rate of soil degradation persists, 100 percent of the planet’s fertile soil may disappear within 60 years. Through a regenerative approach to land and animal management, farmers have the opportunity to turn agriculture into a solution to climate change. Moreover, a 2018 study found that regenerative cropland had 29% lower grain production but 78% higher profits over conventional corn production systems. Regenerative farms have the potential to make more profit by growing higher-margin crops and reducing expensive inputs. The researchers also found that the regenerative fields boasted higher levels of organic soil matter – decreasing the need for external fertilizer. 

In short, regenerative agriculture is a set of farming practices that enable any grower to become more environmentally responsible and profitable while producing nutritious food that revitalizes the ecosystem it is grown in. To learn more about the movement, check out our curated list of resources to dig deeper into regenerative food, agriculture, and land use.

Listen: In this episode of The Doctor’s Farmacy, Dr. Mark Hyman and Gabe Brown – one of the pioneers of the modern soil health movement – discuss the arguments against regenerative agriculture. Many critics believe that regenerative practices, such as no-till farming and holistic planned grazing, are not scalable and that all forms of livestock production contribute to climate change. Gabe unpacks these myths and highlights the methods that farmers can use to restore land degraded by industrial farming. Above all else, he stresses the importance of working in alignment with nature to produce nutritious food. Gabe operates Brown’s Ranch, a diversified 5,000-acre farm and ranch in North Dakota.