Organic vs. Regenerative vs. Carbon Farming: What’s the Difference?
Sunday, March 20, 2022
While cultivating land for crops has always been dynamic, the wider agricultural landscape itself is evolving rapidly to accommodate changing demands and consumer mindsets on food and the environment.
Certain practices that used to be standard across farms can now be considered outdated or even harmful. While many farmers are simply responding to profit or crop loss and are looking for improved ways to revitalise farmlands.
Alternatives exist beyond conventional farming that provides various paths to achieving farm targets. Three of the most popular ones are organic, regenerative, and carbon farming. While these three approaches to land management are very often used interchangeably, there are crucial differences that set them apart from each other.
The harsh truth about conventional farming
The history of human development wouldn’t be the same if not for our early ancestors learning to work the land to produce food. Farming started to intensify when modern breakthroughs in science and engineering introduced novel solutions to improve yield as demand for food and materials grow. The wide-spread use of chemical inputs, coupled with new plant breeds that require high levels of nutrients kept many farmers tied to more chemical inputs for their farm to stay productive.
This isn’t to say that amendments to soil inputs are all bad. Adding nutrients to the soil such as using minerals or manure are known ancient methods. What’s changed is the composition and the rates at which inputs are applied to produce yields never seen before.
Confidence in using chemical fertilisers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides made the rates of application much more deliberate in the short term. Unintended consequences resulted in depleted soil fertility, polluted water supplies, and contributed to heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere causing climate change.
Turning over a new leaf
The true cost of cultivating crops is starting to add up. Sky-high fertiliser prices, loss of fertile soil, threats of climate change and extreme weather — what used to make sense for farm profitability is starting to lose value. Approaches to land management are shifting towards sustainable land cultivation for the future without losing sight of current revenue potential.
What is organic farming?
Out of the three, organic agriculture has the most defined set of regulations, standards, and certification processes across different countries, with international guidelines. Apart from regulations, it is also largely consumer-driven. Growing more conscious of the environment and human well-being, buyers attribute health and happiness as primary reasons for choosing organic produce.
While exact regional regulations provide nuanced definitions, by and large, organic farming can be defined based on what it shouldn’t have — synthetic inputs.
Carrying an organic label on products and farm means that prohibited substances are avoided for crop production, and only natural (plant or animal-derived) inputs are used. Natural approaches to farming can be recommended, although not always required by country guidelines. The most important factor for certified organic farms and products is the absence of substances that are chemically or industrially manufactured.
What is regenerative farming?
Beyond chemical inputs used on farms, regenerative agricultural systems prescribe diverse methods to achieve wider agro-ecosystem benefits.
Some regenerative farming practices are:
Low to no-tillage
No or limited external inputs
Organic inputs (no synthetic, only on-farm animal or plant-derived)
Incorporating local or indigenous knowledge
Regenerative farming emphasises natural methods to veer away from conventional farming that’s become synonymous with resource-intensive procedures that deplete and disregard biological processes.
There is a general consensus that regenerative farming results in restoring ecological balance in agricultural lands. These outcomes are some of the ways regenerative practices can positively influence croplands:
Improves soil health
Increases soil carbon through carbon sequestration
Reduces greenhouse gas emissions
Maintains or improve farm productivity
Develops farm resilience
Reduces farm waste
What is carbon farming?
There is definitely some overlap between organic, regenerative, and carbon farming. Organic focuses on the outcome and regenerative farming is a departure from conventional into restorative farming processes.
Carbon farming is both outcome-based and process-oriented. It has the primary goal of sequestering carbon and storing that carbon in agricultural soils and vegetation. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions can also be another goal of carbon farming.
Soils are major carbon sinks. As high levels of CO2 continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, managing lands in a way that promotes soil carbon storage is a unique ecosystem service from agriculture.
4 ways carbon farming yields added value for farmers
1. Carbon farming co-benefits
Consequently, improving soil carbon in farms also provides other co-benefits that are similar to regenerative farming such as improved soil health, biodiversity, productivity, and resilience, to name a few.
2. Profiting with carbon farming
Perhaps what sets carbon farming apart from the other two farming systems are financial incentives. Farmers who shift to carbon farming get paid for successful soil carbon sequestration that is recognised in the form of certified carbon credits.
3. MRV and carbon credits
While results can be ambiguous with regenerative agriculture, measurements in carbon farming are required, starting with baseline figures to understand changes in soil carbon over time. Monitoring, reporting, and verification (MRV) are integral to scale carbon farming. In fact, the EU is developing a standard framework to make the system robust.
4. Finding a carbon program
A carbon program provides guidance to farmers on how they can get paid through carbon farming. Expert services are provided by a top-tier carbon program. From baseline measurement, monitoring, reporting, and certification; planning the right farming practices specific to a farm, all the way to receiving income from carbon credit buyers.
Seufert, V. Ramankutty, N. Mayerhofer, T. (2017). What is this thing called organic? – How organic farming is codified in regulations. Food Policy, Volume 68, 2017, pp 10-20, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodpol.2016.12.009
Newton P, Civita N, Frankel-Goldwater L, Bartel K and Johns C (2020) What Is Regenerative Agriculture? A Review of Scholar and Practitioner Definitions Based on Processes and Outcomes. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 4:577723. doi: 10.3389/fsufs.2020.577723, https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2020.577723
McDonald, H., Frelih-Larsen, A., Lóránt, A., Duin, L., Pyndt Andersen, S., Costa, G., and Bradley, H. 2021, Carbon farming – Making agriculture fit for 2030, Study for the committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI), Policy Department for Economic, Scientific and Quality of Life Policies, European Parliament, Luxembourg,. https://www.ecologic.eu/sites/default/files/publication/2021/70301-Carbon-farming-Making-agriculture-fit-for-2030.pdf
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