Farming has huge potential to restore biodiversity and mitigate climate change, while producing food and livelihoods.

Regenerative, organic and agroecology: What’s the difference?

Find out what three main routes to sustainable farming actually mean and how to support them.

Regenerative, organic, agroecological. You might encounter all of these terms in the search for ‘sustainably’ grown food (there’s another!). This word soup is a great sign that lots of farming communities are experimenting to find a better way, but as a consumer, it can be pretty confusing. 

Here’s a quick guide to each term, to help you make sense of labels, and separate the green from the greenwash. 

What is organic farming?

Organic farming first arose in the 1940s, as a reaction against the industrialisation of agriculture. These days, it’s got a strict legal definition, and to call your produce “organic” you must be certified. In the UK, most organic goods are certified by the Soil Association or OF&G – just look for their stamps on the label.

Above all, organic farming is about nature: protecting it, enhancing it, and working in harmony with rather than fighting against it. The whole farm system works together with natural systems and cycles, for the good of the soil, plants, animals, humans, and wider environment.

Organic farmers…

  • Don’t use artificial pesticides, fertilisers, or weedkillers
  • Protect the health of the soil by using crop rotations to build its fertility naturally
  • Guarantee the highest animal welfare standards of any farming system
  • Encourage biodiversity and protect sensitive habitats
  • Minimise waste, feeding as much as possible back into the farm
  • Never grow genetically modified (GM) crops

Among many other detailed rules. Regular inspections make sure farmers are staying true to these standards.

What is regenerative farming?

Regenerative has been gathering speed as a grassroots movement among farmers over the past decade. It’s not yet a standardised system, like organic – instead, it’s more of a mindset. The phrase can be used to describe a broad range of farming activities which aim to restore healthy soils, clean water, and biodiversity.

Groundswell, the UK’s annual gathering of regenerative farmers, describes five key principles:

  • Don’t disturb the soil by tilling, which damages its complex structure and biology.
  • Keep the soil surface covered with plant-life, to protect it from erosion.
  • Keep living roots in the soil, to feed the bacteria and fungi that keep it fertile, and also prevent erosion.
  • Grow a diverse range of crops, rather than growing one crop intensively and repeatedly.
  • Bring grazing animals back to the land, as part of a fertility-boosting rotation of crops and animals.

These have a lot of overlap with long-standing organic practices, but there are some key differences.

You may need to ask questions about the things that matter to you – how often do they spray with artificial pesticides? What are their standards of animal welfare?

Cows in field
Regenerative farmers use livestock and plant diversity in fields to boost soil health.

First, how best to protect healthy soils? Organic farmers are permitted to till their fields, to kill weeds and fertilise without artificial chemicals. Regenerative farmers, on the other hand, may feel that it’s less damaging to sometimes spray their fields than to disturb the soil with a plough.

Arguably, there isn’t a right or wrong here; both are damaging in different ways. That’s why many organic farmers also use low- or no-till methods, and many regenerative farmers also minimise their use of agrichemicals. 

“The best organic farmers are regenerative, and the best regenerative farmers are organic,” says Harriet Bell, regenerative farming lead at organic veg box company Riverford.

The other vital difference is that because regenerative is not yet held to legal standards, it’s more vulnerable to greenwashing. Take two farmers who call themselves ‘regenerative’; the first might be practising just one principle, while the second might have designed an entirely holistic system.

Organic accounts for just three per cent of the UK’s farmland.

Organic accounts for just three per cent of the UK’s farmland. A broader, more accessible movement may well be needed – and regenerative is open to any farmer who wishes to work more sustainably, to whatever extent they can. But as a customer, it’s harder to know exactly what you’re buying.

What is agroecology?

Agroecology is not just a set of farming practices; it’s also a social and political movement, and a scientific discipline. 

Like organic, agroecology first emerged in the 1940s. Ecologists study the relationships between plants, animals, people, and their environments; agroecologists consider how what we learn from ecology can be applied to agriculture, designing farm systems which mimic natural ecosystems.

Agroecology wants food produced sustainably in a way that empowers people. Image Landworkers’ Alliance.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because agroecology is an umbrella term which covers both regenerative and organic. The ideal agroecological landscape would:

  • Provide nutritious food
  • In a way that empowers and benefits the local community
  • While being rich in biodiversity
  • Resilient in the face of climate change
  • And using natural resources, such as soil and water, as part of a regenerative system.

If we could achieve this, it would be the most sustainable farm in the world. Many farming systems, including organic and regenerative, are vital parts of our journey towards it.

Agroecology considers not just farming methods, but also the whole human system surrounding the farm.

However, agroecology is also broader and more holistic; it considers not just farming methods, but also the whole human system surrounding the farm. Agroecologists discuss all sorts of social justice issues within the global food system – such as how to address power imbalances, improve food security, reform land ownership, or value indigenous cultures and diets.

Individual regenerative and organic farmers may still consider these issues, but it isn’t baked into each movement’s principles. For example, organic veg box company Riverford is employee owned, guarantees the Real Living Wage, and has a Supplier Charter promising fair relationships with its suppliers – but this is all separate from its organic certification.

Where can you buy organic, regenerative, or agroecologically farmed food?

The easiest answer here is organic: just look for an organic certification stamp as you browse the shop shelves, or seek out specialised organic suppliers online.

For both regenerative and agroecological farming, the only real way is to try to meet your local farmers – via veg box schemes, butchers or farm shops, or on social media. You may need to ask questions about the things that matter to you – how often do they spray with artificial pesticides? What are their standards of animal welfare? But through these conversations, you could find and support some great local producers.

Whatever you choose, all are trying to do better than the norm.


2 Comments

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  1. Thanks for explaining the difference between the three ! I was not sure and am wary of ‘greenwashing’ , as you point out. Good to know the choices be reminded that it is important to check out the details.

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  2. Even though I took the pictures, i.e. am biased, the best book on regenerative farming that I am aware of is Marianne Landzettel’s book
    Regenerative Agriculture: Farming with Benefits. Profitable Farms. Healthy Food. Greener Planet.
    Foreword by Nicolette Hahn Niman.

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