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Regenerative or organic?

’Regenerative’ is the new buzz word in food and farming – but what does it mean, and how is it different from organic?
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Regenerative or organic?

This article first appeared in our COP28 issue of My Green Pod Magazine, published 30 November 2023. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

We need to choose how our food is produced and consumed, just as we are choosing how we want our electricity to be generated and our homes to be powered.

Industrial agricultural practices have degraded our soils on a global scale, releasing carbon that has been stored in the ground for thousands of years.

In fact, one-third of the 30% increase in greenhouse gases over the last 100 years can be attributed to industrial agriculture.

Farmers are uniquely placed to start repairing the damage caused by the last 100 years of fossil-fuel based development by rebuilding soil carbon stocks.

The Science Based Targets initiative (SBti) is relying on the potential of the FLAG (Forestry, Land and Agriculture) sector to remove 32Gt of CO2 – a year’s global emissions – from the atmosphere through soil carbon sequestration between 2020 and 2050 to keep global warming below 1.5°C.

‘Organic agriculture offers a proven, holistic solution that delivers for climate and nature’, says Soil Association’s Sarah Compson. ‘But it needs a lot more support, particularly from policymakers and business, in order for it to rapidly scale and fulfil its full potential as a cornerstone for escalating action on climate and biodiversity.’

Yeo Valley Organic owner Tim Mead agrees the will to act is our limiting factor; ‘There are no short cuts or quick fixes’, he says; ‘this can only be done with a field-by-field, parish-by-parish, county-by-county, country-by-country approach. The influences of topography, soil types, biology and hydrology give the impression this is a very complex issue. We are over-analysing things. We know the solution; nature is guiding us. We need to get the right leaves above ground, the right roots below ground and the right animals on the land so farmers can remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store it in the soil.’

Organic is regenerative

With almost 50% of agricultural lands moderately to severely degraded, and agriculture responsible for 70% of the world’s freshwater use, ‘regenerative agriculture’ practices are being hailed an important lever to restore soil health, increase climate resilience, protect water resources and biodiversity and enhance farmers’ productivity and profitability.

Soil health sits at the heart of regenerative agriculture; the goal is to conserve and rehabilitate farming systems by restoring degraded soil and regenerating topsoil – one teaspoon of which typically contains up to 6 billion microorganisms.

As an internationally recognised and legally binding standard across the farm-to-fork supply chain, the organic standard is a truly regenerative approach.

Unlike the strict standards for organic certification, regenerative agriculture currently lacks a universal, legally accepted definition.

Regenerative isn’t always organic

‘Regenerative farming’ covers a range of practices that vary in focus and scope, from the straightforward monitoring of the carbon held in soil to analysis of soil health and biodiversity and sometimes also fair trading conditions.

For these reasons regenerative agriculture is an accessible approach and it is gaining traction; according to the Food and Agriculture and Nature Benchmarks, published in October by the World Benchmarking Alliance, 51% of companies reference regenerative agriculture and 27% say they are implementing strategies to improve the livelihoods of farmers and fishers through procurement practices and pricing strategies.

A stepping stone to organic

Considering 98% of the UK’s food is not organic, regenerative agriculture looks like a good step for the companies and farms that are unable, currently, to meet the gold standard of organic certification.

For many, regenerative agriculture is seen as a good place to start and perhaps even a stepping stone to organic farming practices – which improve soil health, on-farm biodiversity and water quality – and finally to the highest benchmark of organic certification.

For this reason the carrot is arguably more useful than the stick when it comes to regenerative agriculture; the alternative is sustainable intensification of farming practices, which would use artificial fertilisers and pesticides to ramp yield per acre as high as possible.

This approach clearly has greater appeal to Big Agriculture as the results would be far more lucrative – though it would involve monocropping and environmental damage.

Monocropping is a major contributor to land and water degradation, yet currently just four crops (corn, rice, potatoes and wheat) form 60% of the calories consumed by the global population. We can’t expect to see diversity in our environment when we have such a lack of diversity in our diets.

Seeking a joint solution

Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) can be made using produce from a regenerative or intensive farming system, so deciding which route to take is only the beginning of the conversation.

‘Biodiversity loss and food and nutrition insecurity are closely related problems that need a joint solution’, said João Campari, WWF’s global food practice leader.

João was speaking ahead of COP28, at the publication of an open letter containing an urgent call to integrate a food systems approach within the UNFCCC.

The letter, issued by a global coalition of 70 high-profile individuals and organisations, including WWF, urged parties to the UNFCCC to acknowledge the critical role of food systems – including food production, consumption and waste, land use change and nutrition – in achieving the Paris goals. 

Agriculture has a decisive role to play. Adopting regenerative farming principles could be the way to achieve the scale and pace of change necessary if we are to keep 1.5 alive and nourish a growing population as the climate crisis unfolds.

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