Regenerative vs. Sustainable Agriculture

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In the past few years, the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ has been popping up in main stream media, featured as conference topics, farming initiatives, and embraced by large food companies such as General Mills and Wrangler Jeans. But what does the term mean? And how is this different than sustainable agriculture?

Currently, no official definition exists and confusion and claims abound with the use of the term. A recent review article in Frontiers in Sustainable Foods Systems brought much of this to light  (Newton et al, 2020). What we can say, in general, is that regenerative agriculture refers to a practice of farming and land use that aims to improve or restore the overall health of the soil, thereby increasing the soil’s capacity to sustain production and provide environmental benefits.

The main focus areas of regenerative agriculture are:

  • Conserve and rehabilitate the food and farming systems
  • Regenerate topsoil
  • Increase biodiversity
  • Improve the water cycle
  • Enhance ecosystem services
  • Support soil carbon storage

Sustainable agriculture, on the other hand, was loosely described in the 1990 Farm Bill as an integrated system of plant and animal production practices with site-specific applications that over the long term sustains economic stability, enhances environmental quality, efficiently utilizes resources, and provides benefits to society while providing food and fiber.

While there are subtle but important differences between sustainable agriculture which seeks to maintain and cease degradation of land, and regenerative agriculture which seeks to restore land, promote soil health, and provide ecosystem services– the general principles are the same. Both focus on building resilience to climate change and bringing strength and vitality to the soil through soil health practices.

One theme you may have noticed through all of this is that these practices center on the health of the soil. Soil (and water) is paramount to life on this planet.

Many of the production practices recommended under either of these systems are similar.

  • Use of cover crops to improve nutrient management and soil health by fostering a diverse soil microbial community.
  • Reduction of soil disturbance through no-till or conservation tillage practices halt top soil loss and improve drainage.
  • Crop rotation to reduce disease and insect pressure build-up and improved nutrient balance in soil.
  • Implementing precision agriculture practices that reduce inputs which reduces ecological impacts of pesticides and nutrient run-off.
  • Increase organic matter to improve water holding capacity and sequester atmospheric carbon into the soil.