Organic, Sustainable, Regenerative, Climate Smart – What’s the Difference?

Posted on Wednesday, October 28th, 2020 by
Orchards and wildflowers struggle to grow on drought stricken land in California. USDA photo by Lance Cheung.

Core to CalCAN’s vision is a widespread transition to sustainable and organic agricultural systems that are more resilient in the face of a changing climate. Why organic and sustainable? These systems utilize practices that provide multiple environmental and public health benefits that also reduce greenhouse gases and store carbon on-farm, and improve farm viability.

Widely recognized, they are also legally defined in federal statute. “Organic” refers to regulated and approved production methods, including practices that maintain and enhance soil and water quality and biodiversity while eliminating the use of synthetic fertilizers and genetic engineering. You can read more about organic practices from CalCAN Coalition partner CCOF here.  “Sustainable agriculture” is legally defined as a farming system that satisfies human food and fiber needs, enhances environmental and natural resource quality, efficiently uses non-renewable resources, and enhances and sustains economic viability and quality of life for farmers and communities. Learn more here from the University of California Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP).

The following practices are often included in these agriculture toolkits:

  • low/no-till
  • cover crops
  • reduced/eliminated synthetic fertilizers/inputs
  • encouraging diversity
  • silvopasture (the integration of livestock and agroforestry/tree production)
  • mulching
  • crop rotation
  • hedgerows/windbreaks
  • compost application
  • wetlands/riparian land restoration

Right now, there are several other terms used to describe smaller scale, chemical-independent agricultural systems that have climate change mitigation and adaptation goals, such as regenerative agriculture, climate smart agriculture, carbon farming, ecological farming…the list goes on. Unlike organic and sustainable, these terms are not legally defined, and at times it can be confusing to tell the differences between them.

Most of them encompass the same practices (see sidebar), with similar desired social, environmental and economic outcomes. The practices shared among these systems highlight agriculture’s ability to achieve goals beyond food production, like building healthier soils for increased resilience, improving the health of farming communities, and reducing and storing greenhouse gas emissions. Below is a brief overview of some of the different agriculture systems you may have heard about:

“Ecological Farming”

Ecological farming systems focus on protecting soil, water and climate, while promoting biodiversity and eliminating chemical inputs, to ensure food security and the health of farming communities. Read more here from CalCAN coalition members Ecological Farming Association (EcoFarm) and Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF).

“Regenerative Agriculture”

We’re hearing a lot about “regenerative agriculture” these days. Regenerative agriculture generally refers to principles and practices that improve watersheds and ecosystem services, while increasing biodiversity and enriching soils. The general focus is to enhance and improve the natural resources used in farming through the act of farming, instead of depleting them.

Boonville Barn Collective (Mendocino County)
Boonville Barn Collective in Mendocino County received a Healthy Soils grant, part of California’s Climate Smart Agriculture programs.

“Climate smart agriculture”

Climate smart agriculture is guided by three pillars: sustainably increasing productivity and incomes, adapting and becoming resilient to climate change, and mitigating climate change through the reduction of greenhouse gases. It can include farmland conservation to limit energy-intensive urban sprawl, reduction of methane from manure management, water conservation, soil health, on-farm renewable energy production, and more. In the past five years, the state of California launched a suite of Climate Smart Agriculture programs that invest public funding in agricultural solutions to climate change. Overall, the general premise is to incentivize specific farming practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, store carbon in soil and woody plants, and deliver other environmental and health co-benefits.

“Carbon farming”

“Carbon farming” refers to the implementation of practices that specifically improve the rate of carbon dioxide removal from atmosphere and increase soil carbon storage. Carbon farming is one aspect of the wider approach embodied in climate smart agriculture. Read more here from Carbon Cycle Institute.

Many of these agricultural systems share practices which have similar purposes: building healthier soils that can store more carbon, reducing erosion and runoff; reducing tillage to minimize disturbance and dust; and using natural nutrient inputs, like compost applications, cover crops that fix nitrogen, or integrating livestock, to reduce the synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. These practices ensure food and farming systems’ resilience, particularly in the face of a rapidly changing climate.

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