Organic vs. Sustainable Farming: What’s the Difference?

Organic vs. Sustainable Farming: What’s the Difference?

The words ‘organic farming’ and ‘sustainable agriculture’ are often used interchangeably. However, while these terms are closely connected, they do refer to two distinct concepts. In this blog post, we’ll explain the difference between the two. 

Organic farming = sustainable agriculture?  

Here’s the tricky bit: organic farming can generally be classified as contributing to sustainable agriculture, as most organic farms also follow sustainable practices. Yet organic products can also be produced on farms that are not sustainable, and sustainable farming need not be 100% organic. Making matters even more complicated, a farm could be following (or exceeding) organic standards, but isn’t recognised as such as the farmer doesn’t want to pay the expense of getting certified. 

One way of thinking of the difference between organic farming and sustainable agriculture is: 

  • Organic farming involves a precise set of criteria when it comes to growing and raising produce. In South Africa, you need to have been producing according to these criteria for between 24 and 36 months (depending on the crop) before you can receive organic certification. 
  • Sustainable agriculture is more of a philosophy and way of life that involves not only the produce itself, but the natural, social and economic farming environments as a whole

The key distinguishing feature of sustainable agriculture is that it’s a way of feeding the world (now and into the future) without damaging the environment or threatening human health.  Certified organic farming, on the other hand, may not produce food using methods that will sustain the farm’s yields and productivity for generations to come.  

Key features of sustainable farming include: 

  • Ecological and ethically responsible 
  • Practices can lead to higher yields over time 
  • Less need for expensive and environmentally damaging inputs 
  • No official certification required  

Examples of organic vs. sustainable farming in action 

 Organic Sustainable 
Animal welfare 


Farmers can confine animals and still gain organic certification. Animals must be permitted to carry out their natural behaviours (such as rooting, pecking or grazing). 


No antibiotics can be fed to organic-certified livestock. Antibiotic use in sustainable farming restricted – they can be used, as long as they have run out of the animal’s system before selling its meat or milk.  
Artificial hormones No added or artificial hormones. No added or artificial hormones. 
Food travel Does not take into consideration the use of fossil fuels used to transport food.  Distributed and sold as close to the  farm as possible. 
Chemical inputs Avoids use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides, additives etc.  Sustainable farming uses inputs appropriately depending on need and overall sustainability.  
Organic inputs Organic manure, mulching, green manure, botanical extracts etc.  Organic manure, mulching, green manure, botanical extracts etc. – if these inputs benefit sustainability.  
Evaluation Set of standard commercial farming rules.  Based on soil health, water efficiency, energy efficiency, labour conditions, biodiversity etc.  

 Essentially, sustainable farming involves a more holistic outlook than organic farming, with a focus on addressing global sustainability goals. 

Your sustainable farming solution  

Ay Zylem, we focus on sustainable farming techniques that will see farms well into the future. Contact us today to find out how we can apply our expertise to your unique circumstances:

Leave a Reply