Regenerative Agriculture: What is it and how does it differ from sustainable agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture is a concept that is not new to agriculture, and aspects have been practiced by farmers and ranchers for generations. However, the word has been mentioned by those in the legislature and the media lately as a solution to the climate crisis. Sustainable is a word frequently used in agriculture, and yet, has no clear definition. What is the difference between the two and are we using the wrong term? Is there more that the agriculture community could do to be sustainable or regenerative?

The concept of regenerative agriculture was first mentioned by Bob Rodale, chief and executive officer of Rodale Press prior to his death in 1990. In an interview in 1989, Rodale stated that he preferred the word “regenerative” agriculture as he was not satisfied with sustainability saying, “I don’t think people would prefer to live in a sustained environment,” but rather, “something that is expanding and growing better.” Rodale noted that it is, “more fruitful in an inventive, scientific concept to point to ways of opportunities.”

Those opportunities are several practices designed to what Terra Genesis International state, “farming principles and practices that increase biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services.” They advocate implementation through four basic principles consisting of designing and making holistic decisions, ensure reciprocal relationships with all stakeholders, growing and evolving to actualize their potential and improve whole agroecosystems through several farming practices. These principles can be achieved through methods such as planting cover crops, no-till farming, managed grazing with animal integration, composting, pasture cropping, silvopasture and agroforestry.

These are not new practices and have been practiced in some capacity over the decades. Regardless if you are an organic or conventional farmer, they share the basics of minimize tillage, keep the ground covered in some plant material, rotate crops and incorporate animals into the fields and forests. However, there are differing views of what the exact definition of regenerative agriculture is as illustrated by the chart below:

BLOG Regenerative chart


Whether you adopt all or some of these practices, each will contribute to carbon sequestration. The amount depends on which article and there is no clear consensus of how much exactly it will sequester. Terra Genesis International states that the amount of carbon sequestered can be anywhere from 1 to 34 metric tons per year or the equivalent of a minimum of 413 gallons of gasoline consumed, or 0.639 homes’ electrical use in one year or 467,545 cellphones charged. Tim LaSalle of the Regenerative Agriculture Initiative at California State University at Chico realizes that many will be skeptical without the strong evidence to back up the evidence of regenerative agriculture acknowledging, “we just need the research and replication.”

However, LaSalle is confident that this system will work stating, “I know it’s going to solve the climate crisis, I know it’s going to solve the hunger crisis, and I know it’s going to solve the water and topsoil crisis,” LaSalle said speaking to Grist. “That’s something organic agriculture can’t do, and conventional can’t do. But regenerative agriculture can.”

Given the concepts of regenerative agriculture, how does it differ from sustainable agriculture? The definition and practices of sustainable agriculture are broad, but an encompassing definition can be found from the University of California at Davis’ Agricultural Sustainability Institute. The institute states that “practitioners of sustainable agriculture seek to integrate three main objectives into their work: a healthy environment, economic profitability, and social and economic equity. Every person involved in the food system—growers, food processors, distributors, retailers, consumers, and waste managers—can play a role in ensuring a sustainable agricultural system.” This definition is envisioned in the broadest sense in that it meets the needs of the present while trying to assist future generations to meet their needs by incorporating the individual farm and communities affected by the individual farm both locally and globally. Local farms can be sustainable by incorporating the use of cover crops, reducing tillage, management of the soil and maximum diversification through the incorporation of crops and livestock. For farmers to be sustainable, it needs to diversify through the use of multiple crops to prevent mono-cropping and the possibility of losing the crop due to situations beyond their control or a slump in commodity prices. Sustainable practices are those that can be used by organic or conventional farmers as it stresses the use of products that are the least toxic and energy intensive, yet maintain productivity and profitability for the farmer. The goal is to develop biological systems that do not need high levels of material inputs.

The problem, as I see it, is that it requires not only the farmer but all aspects in the supply chain including consumers, food processors, distributors, waste recovers and others. This is where the cycle is broken as food waste is a problem in food production and with a diversion from consumer waste. According to the EPA, food waste in landfills accounts for approximately 16 percent of methane emissions. We, as consumers, like our fruits and vegetables to be blemish free and be available year-round regardless of the growing season. Food is transported over great distances to meet our demands.

Perhaps Bob Rodale was correct, expressing that to be sustainable is maintaining homeostasis by maintaining at a certain rate or level without ever improving. Until then, everybody in the chain needs to practice the principles of sustainability to make it viable. Whether it is regenerative or sustainable, there needs to be a fundamental change to incorporate new technology with some of the practices generations have used in the past. It starts with the field and works its way to the dinner table.