The Key Differences Between Regenerative and Sustainable Farming

The Key Differences Between Regenerative and Sustainable Farming

“If agriculture is one of our biggest problems, it can be one of our greatest solutions.” 

— Diana Martin, director of communications for the Rodale Institute. 

‘Sustainable’ agriculture and ‘regenerative’ agriculture are terms that are often used interchangeably. Although these practices share some of the same methods and philosophies, they are not quite the same. In this blog post, we detail some of the key distinguishing factors between regenerative and sustainable farming. 

What is sustainable farming? 

Sustainable farming is the name for a loose set of agricultural practices that work together to sustain the economic viability of farming by working with natural processes rather than against them.

Sustainable farming addresses a holistic range of issues, such as water management, crop management, soil fertility, energy management, waste management and disease/pest management – all with the goal of making the farm more future-fit and resilient. 

What is regenerative farming? 

The regenerative farmer applies a holistic management framework to restore the environment. Regenerative agriculture aims to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation. It’s not just a way to continue to live with our environment, but aims to restore lands to their former productivity. 

What’s the difference between the two?

The key difference between regenerative and sustainable agriculture is that regenerative agriculture intends to regenerate, or renew, the productivity and growth potential. By definition, sustainable practices seek to maintain systems without degrading them, whereas regenerative practices apply management techniques to restore the system to improved productivity. 

However, regenerative and sustainable agriculture are not distinctly different – in fact, regenerative agriculture can be practised as part of an overall sustainability plan. Although regenerative and sustainable agriculture can use essentially the same practices, the difference comes in the application and the management of these methods. 

Regenerative agricultural processes include:

  • Reduced tillage
  • Crop rotations
  • Cover cropping
  • Rotational grazing
  • Composting
  • Limiting GMOs
  • Reducing the application of pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser.

These practices cycle nutrients in the system without aggressively disturbing the soil, keeping carbon stored underground where it belongs. The soil’s biodiversity is also improved, reducing the need for fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. 

The role of soil health in regenerative agriculture

According to one United Nations’ estimate, we have fewer than 60 harvests left before we destroy the world’s topsoil if we keep our current farming practices. 

The science and theory behind regenerative agriculture is centred around soil health and productivity, and the goal of regenerative farming practices is to restore the natural balance of healthy soils.

A healthy soil can reduce or eliminate the need for synthetic fertilisers, increase crop productivity and yields, conserve water, promote biodiversity and sequester carbon in the soil. Some of the regenerative practices that promote soil health include crop rotation, rotational livestock grazing and reduced pesticide application.

Consumer-driven demand

With the ‘regenerative’ buzzword becoming more widespread, there may come a time when regenerative agriculture practices will become more mainstream due to customer demand (similar to the demand for organic produce). 

In 2018, the Rodale Institute (a nonprofit organic agriculture research organisation) introduced the Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). Building off of the organic label, the ROC adds requirements for soil health, animal health, and farmworker fairness. 

Moving towards both sustainable and regenerative agriculture is becoming increasingly important due to the effects of climate change. We also need to mitigate the drain placed on Earth’s resources by conventional farming. The world’s population is also growing, and we need to find a way to feed it into the future. 

Zylem promotes sustainable and regenerative agriculture by focusing on improving soil health. Get in touch to find out more:

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