Organic vs. Sustainable vs. Regenerative Agriculture: What’s the Difference?

The choices we make in the grocery store aisles — and in our investment portfolios — affect the water we drink to the air we breathe to the kind of planet we will have for our kids and future generations. In contemplating where to put our hard-earned dollars, we are becoming ever more aware of how our purchasing and investment decisions align with our values. 

Whether you are opting for certified organic foods at the farmer’s market or making socially and environmentally responsible, or ESG, investments for your portfolio (or for your institution’s capital), your important considerations create impact with your capital in both immediate spending practices and long-term investment planning.

To help, as experts in agriculture, soil biology and farm management, we’re highlighting some of the key differences between the common, somewhat overlapping terms of Organic, Sustainable and Regenerative agriculture so that you can be empowered to make the best decisions for you and your family.

Conventional, Chemical-Dependent, Commodity Agriculture

Before looking at the alternatives, it is important to know where 96% of our food comes from. Starting in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, chemical factories from WWII found a new purpose in agriculture; the explosive ammonium nitrate was found to increase plant production when added to farm fields and is still used today as fertilizer. The chemical weapons, like mustard gas, were found to be effective against crop pests. 

This industrialization of agriculture led us to the system we have today – almost no crop diversification, many pests and weeds requiring increasing amounts of ever-more-toxic chemicals, and a factory-like drive to produce the cheapest food possible, without real considerations of the impact on human health and the environment.  

Certified Organic: A Trusted Standard

You know when you purchase a product with the USDA Organic label that it has been produced without the use of non-organic compounds and has met stringent growing, labeling and handling standards. Certified organic producers must have an annual plan that addresses soil and ecosystem health, and their operations are reviewed each year by organic certifiers under the guidelines set by the National Organic Standards Board, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It is a trustworthy, federally regulated standard.  But as consumers become increasingly conscious of the long-term, environmental impact of their purchases and investments, the certified organic label may not in itself check all the boxes. Extensive crop rotations, creating healthy pollinator habitats and vigorously improving soil biology to create rich and thriving farmland are a few important considerations that the organic certification does not by itself guarantee. 

Sustainable Agriculture: Not Factory Farming

The word sustainable encompasses a broad spectrum of principles and practices, with Merriam-Webster defining sustainability as “of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged.” 

Sustainability has connotations of continuity and maintenance, rather than the continuous improvement implied by regenerative agriculture — or certified organic, for that matter. Additionally, there is no national standard governing what constitutes sustainable farming, which creates room for interpretation and can open the door to misleading claims. 

At Farmland LP, sustainable farming means regenerative, ethical farming practices that enhance soil biology and demonstrate a positive, scalable example of producing healthy food on healthy land with fewer external inputs. However, we know chemical farmers that claim their use of precision agriculture “reduces” their use of dangerous herbicides, such as 2,4-D and Roundup, so therefore they are “sustainable.”  We disagree, as it is their underlying farming system that is unsustainable and is the root cause of the systemic ecosystem damage agriculture causes today.  

The conclusion is that sustainable is not a standard, certified word. If someone uses it, it is best to speak with the farmland manager and, ideally, see the farmland for yourself. Capable and trustworthy farmland managers will be knowledgeable and transparent about their farming practices.  

Regenerative Agriculture: The Optimal State

As with sustainable farming, there is no standard designation for regenerative agriculture. This is due, in part, to the fact that it is a relatively new concept that is still being defined and debated. But while exact definitions may vary, the value of regenerative agriculture is inherent to the terminology — essentially, regenerating the land for future better use by fundamentally improving the soil health, rather than simply maintaining the land for its current crops. 

While we can point to specific practices that comprise regenerative agriculture, such as cover cropping, extensive crop diversity and a focus on the foundation of soil health, this is a case where the results are more important than the individual practices or methods used to get there. We are fans of a new emerging standards group called the Regenerative Organic Certification, which builds on top of the organic certification.

Regenerative farming practices have myriad environmental benefits, from mitigating climate change to yielding nutrient-rich crops to improving water quality. For investors, regenerative agriculture at scale can offer higher price points, lower input costs and less vulnerability to market volatility. Big picture, regenerative agriculture can create a better agricultural ecosystem for the benefit of today’s consumers as well as future generations. 

Farmland LP: Sustainable, Organic or Regenerative? (All of the Above)

At Farmland LP, we create and regeneratively manage high-quality, certified organic farmland, resulting in better plant health, greater yields, higher price premiums and a healthier planet overall. Additionally, certified organic farmland yields a higher price premium than conventional farmland, increasing operating income and asset values. 

By focusing on enriching soil health and increasing crop diversity, our investors appreciate being able to invest in well-managed farmland, which historically delivers strong cash flow and appreciation, all while making a positive, lasting environmental impact. Learn more.

Farmland LP was founded 10 years ago and manages 15,000 acres of high-quality farmland in Northern California, Oregon and Washington valued at over $175 million. Farmland LP is one of the 15 largest farmland managers in the U.S. and is the largest organic farmland manager in the U.S.