Regenerative Farming vs Sustainable Farming - What's the Difference?

Regenerative vs Sustainable Agriculture: What’s the difference?

‘Sustainable’ agriculture and ‘regenerative’ agriculture are terms that are often used interchangeably. Although these practices share some of the same methods and philosophies, they are not quite the same. This blog post details some of the key differences between regenerative and sustainable agriculture

In this blog post: 

  1. What is sustainable farming?
  2. What is regenerative farming?
  3. Regenerative vs sustainable farming: what’s the difference?
  4. Regenerative agricultural processes include:
  5. The role of soil health in regenerative agriculture
  6. Why do we need to adopt regenerative agriculture?
  7. The journey to a regenerative approach
  8. Regenerative agriculture is “not rocket science”
  9. Nature’s regenerative reward takes time

What is sustainable farming? 

Sustainable farming is the name for a loose set of agricultural practices that work together to sustain the economic viability of farming by working with natural processes rather than against them.

Sustainable farming addresses a holistic range of issues, such as water management, crop management, soil fertility, energy management, waste management and disease/pest management—all with the goal of making the farm more future-fit and resilient. 

READ MORE: The history of sustainable farming in South Africa 

What is regenerative farming? 

The regenerative farmer applies a holistic management framework to restore the environment. Regenerative agriculture aims to capture carbon in soil and aboveground biomass, reversing current global trends of atmospheric accumulation. It’s not just a way to continue to live with our environment, but aims to restore lands to their former productivity. 

READ MORE: Regenerative Hemp Farming in South Africa 

Regenerative vs sustainable farming: what’s the difference? 

The key difference between regenerative and sustainable agriculture is that regenerative agriculture intends to regenerate, or renew, the productivity and growth potential. By definition, sustainable practices seek to maintain systems without degrading them, whereas regenerative practices apply management techniques to restore the system to improved productivity. 

However, regenerative and sustainable agriculture are not distinctly different – in fact, regenerative agriculture can be practised as part of an overall sustainability plan. Although regenerative and sustainable agriculture can use essentially the same practices, the difference comes in the application and the management of these methods. 

Regenerative agricultural processes include:

  • Reduced tillage
  • Crop rotations
  • Cover cropping
  • Rotational grazing
  • Composting
  • Limiting GMOs
  • Reducing the application of pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser.

These practices cycle nutrients in the system without aggressively disturbing the soil, keeping carbon stored underground where it belongs. The soil’s biodiversity is also improved, reducing the need for fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides. 

The role of soil health in regenerative agriculture

Regenerative Soil Practices- RegenZ

According to one United Nations’ estimate, we have fewer than 60 harvests left before we destroy the world’s topsoil if we keep our current farming practices. 

The science and theory behind regenerative agriculture is centred around soil health and productivity, and the goal of regenerative farming practices is to restore the natural balance of healthy soils.

A healthy soil can reduce or eliminate the need for synthetic fertilisers, increase crop productivity and yields, conserve water, promote biodiversity and sequester carbon in the soil. Some regenerative practices that promote soil health include crop rotation, cover cropping, rotational livestock grazing and reduced pesticide application.

Why do we need to adopt regenerative agriculture? 

With the ‘regenerative’ buzzword becoming more widespread, there may come a time when regenerative agriculture practices will become more mainstream due to customer demand (similar to the demand for organic produce). 

In 2018, the Rodale Institute (a nonprofit organic agriculture research organisation) introduced the Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). Building off of the organic label, the ROC adds requirements for soil health, animal health, and farmworker fairness. 

Moving towards both sustainable and regenerative agriculture is becoming increasingly important due to the effects of climate change. We also need to mitigate the drain placed on Earth’s resources by conventional farming. The world’s population is also growing, and we need to find a way to feed it into the future. 

In an interview with Acres U.S.A, Shane New discusses the need for farmers to take a more biological approach to farming to promote regenerative agriculture. Shane is a stockman, entrepreneur, and partner with Understanding Ag, LLC. He is from Holton, Kansas. As a farmer himself, Shane has been practising methods such as no-tilling, cover crops, rotational grazing and adaptive grazing, for many years. He believes that the future of agriculture and human health will have to come from regenerative agricultural practices.

It was after reading about mycorrhizal fungi for the first time that Shane embarked on the journey of soil health. He says: “If we start understanding how life works – if we can feed the biology with plant root exudates and keep the soil surface covered and start to build aggregation, everything starts working within an equilibrium.”

The journey to a regenerative approach

Instead of advising farmers to cut out synthetic fertilisers and herbicides completely, Shane suggests a more gradual, economically-viable approach.

A tool he recommends to farmers is a soil health test that will give a snapshot of the current soil function. A soil health test can be used to demonstrate the effects (a “before/after”) that regenerative practices have had, giving farmers the confidence that sustainable farming is a practical and effective solution. Once they are convinced, it’s time to start on the journey of reducing inputs, adding diversity and minimising disturbances. 

Regenerative agriculture is “not rocket science”

Shane has three simple suggestions that promote regenerative agriculture. “What I’ve discovered is just something I’ve observed. If we just follow these principles, it’s not rocket science,” he says. 

  1. Don’t disturb the soil 
  2. Get a diversity of plants through cover cropping 
  3. Get animals into the fields with adaptive grazing. 

All of which add more diversity into the soil. “My deal is this: put your efforts on the soil health. If you focus on the soil health and getting soil to function properly, everything else will fix itself.” 

In fact, Shane reports that influencing the functionality of his soils expresses itself in the superior flavours in the food he produces, including animal proteins. Shane has found that letting the animals have a greater diversity of plants in their diet has affected the taste and quality of the meat he produces. 

Nature’s regenerative reward takes time 

“The biggest thing I’d like people to understand is that you’ve got to become intentional. If you’re gonna move down this path, you can’t be intentional-ish. Even if you’re not confident, test it. Follow the principles and keep each principle in place as much as possible. Remember that we work within the ecology. It’s not like we’re going to do one thing and see the consequences tomorrow. It might take a year before you start seeing it. We’ve become a society of instant gratification. That’s not how nature works. She will reward us, but it’s gonna take just a little bit of time.”

RegenZ promotes sustainable and regenerative agriculture. Get in touch to learn more about what we do. 

Profile Picture of Alex Platt

About the Author: Alex Platt

Alex is Business Development Manager at RegenZ. He's inspired by the potential of regenerative farming and takes a special interest in the technology and products that are moving agriculture in a more sustainable direction.

4 comments on “Regenerative vs Sustainable Agriculture: What’s the difference?

Richard Schley
2 years ago

Dear Regenz,
After being in agriculture for over 50 years, 32 years as a commercial farmer in Zimbabwe and 20 years as an Agricultural Consultant in Sub Saharan Africa, my focus has changed completely from using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and heavy machinery to zero tillage, sustainable and regenerative farming methods. My hope is that we can rescue the environment before it is too late and we can’t produce enough food to sustain the growing populations.
My focus would be on implementing these methods into emerging and rural agriculture in the Sub Saharan Africa region. Any pointers from you or your members would be appreciated. Rgds Richard

2 years ago

We are compost/ potting mix vertical growers. Wish to regenerate used compost to be reused in our pocket system.

Angelo Deng Magol
1 year ago

This is a very good information. in fact i learnt new things which, of course be useful to me .

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