Sustainable, regenerative, agroecological, organic. When it comes to food sustainability terms, it’s a bit of a minefield. So, it should come as no surprise that recent research has revealed that many of us don’t completely understand what they all mean.
Food production is at the heart of the nature and climate crises. There is a clear need to change how we eat and produce food, and there is a growing willingness to do so. However, it’s particularly difficult do this in the face of confusing terminology.
As Organic September is upon us, the timing is apt to clarify what organic production is (and isn’t), and how it fits alongside newer movements in farming. Is organic still the best choice to make when it comes to eating sustainably?
Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, the UK’s largest certifier of organic food, explains that: “Agroecology and regenerative should be seen as umbrella terms, both of which describe an approach to nature-friendly farming. A way of farming that gives back more than it takes.”
For Percival, regenerative and agroecological are terms to broadly describe reducing artificial pesticides and fertilisers, diversifying production, and farming with nature instead of against it, while the organic certification is the regulated version of this.
“Organic is the clearest and most defined example of agroecological and regenerative farming. The standards are defined in law, and a certification process is behind it,” he explains.
Percival claims that organic production is always regenerative: “Organic standards have been designed in order to generate regenerative outcomes. We know these standards deliver. If you're buying organic, you can be confident that it is genuinely regenerative.”
However, farming in a regenerative way does not have to mean organic certification, according to farmer and columnist Joe Stanley, who works on the Allerton Project, an initiative looking at the impact of different farming methods on the environment.
“On the Allerton Project, we like to think ourselves as very environmentally friendly, with great biodiversity, but we are not organic,” says Stanley.
However, he adds: “Regenerative agriculture has clearly been hugely informed by organic practice. Organic practice, if we’re honest, is what everyone was doing 70 years ago and it’s just that a lot of us have forgotten that and we’ve used chemicals and fertilisers as a crutch.”
That regenerative farming is more of a mindset and not a strict set of standards is viewed as a positive thing, as farmers can gradually implement environmentally friendly practices, rather than convert their whole farm to organic, which can be daunting.
Stanley confirms that “within the farming community, there is often a mental block to the concept of organic”, recounting how his family baulked at the idea of converting their family farm to organic production.
“Weeds and reduced yields is all that they associate organic with,” he adds.
The conflict between farmers hesitant to convert to organic due to its historic ‘hippy’ image is perhaps still holding the sector back, though new Defra figures showing land in conversion to organic rose by 11.6 per cent this year suggest things might be changing.
For Adele Jones, deputy chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT), it’s the lack of progress once farmers do certify that is the problem, with certification more of a tick box exercise and less of a journey to improved farming.
This is something the SFT is trying to address with a new ‘Global Farm Metric’, a new framework to measure and standardise farm sustainability and give farmers the information to make changes.
“It's kind of an inspector coming looking for trouble,” says Jones, of the organic process. “And at the end of the day, it's a relief if you've ticked all the boxes and you're certified for another year, rather than giving you any information about whether your soil health was any better than it was last year, or what's going on with the water quality, or your emissions.
“It doesn't necessarily give you the toolkit that you need to make continuous improvements,” she highlights.
This concern is echoed by Jyoti Fernandes, head of policy of The Landworkers’ Alliance, the union representing small-scale farmers, foresters and landworkers.
“Our criticism of organic is that it doesn't go far enough,” she says. “They [organic farms] may look after the soil and have no pesticide usage, but it might be grown in a big monoculture, somewhere overseas, growing luxury crops that can be exported.
“What are the wages like? Is it taking up more water than it should be? Is it distributed equitably? Is it affordable for all income groups? It might be owned by some big company profiting from that rather than worker cooperatives,” she emphasises.
This is where the term agroecology fits into the mix. According to Fernandes, agroecology goes further than the simple nature-friendly production methods that are found in organic farming. It links up the entire food system, from workers’ rights to health, investigating power in the food system and corporate control, she explains.
“The [organic] standards are a basic sort of thing, they don’t necessarily cover all aspects of agroecology like the social aspects.”
But despite the shortcomings, Fernandes stresses: “I really believe in organic. I just want it to get to another level.”
Although not enshrined in the certification itself, of course many organic farms and businesses do go further than they have to in things like worker rights and ethical supply chains. Whether that’s through B Corp certification, which places equal weighting on social and environmental sustainability, or writing their own ethical supplier code.
Perhaps the real power of organic extends beyond its market share. Organic advocates and pioneers have long been influencing the sustainable food debate, even before the destructive effects of industrial farming became clear. Sharing knowledge more practically is also common, with schemes like Innovative Farmers where organic principles of working with nature are shared across the wider agriculture sector.
So where will organic be in ten years’ time? Will it remain the frontrunner in green food standards? Or perhaps it will be the baseline for a new era of farming, combining food, people and carbon impacts. Or, perhaps, we might even have a future where there’s no need for any certification, and the principles of sustainable food are properly entrenched, recognised and rewarded, and accessible to all