What is the difference between organics and regenerative ag?

Alex Boersch, who farms 5,000 acres near Elie, Man., is practising organic and regenerative agriculture on his cropland. He was a featured speaker at the 2020 Prairie Organics conference, held in early March in Brandon | Robert Arnason photo

The brands, labels and words surrounding organic and regenerative farming have become confusing.

Consumers likely have many unanswered questions: is regenerative better than organic? Which one is better for the environment and human health? Is there a real difference?

It has also become perplexing for growers who want to tap into the alternative food markets. Is there more opportunity in organic? Or, is it better to adopt cover crops, reduced tillage, diverse rotations, livestock and the other practices of regenerative agriculture?

Alex Boersch, who farms near Elie, Man., has decided the answer is both. He’s converting 1,500 acres of his farm to organic. On the remainder of the cropland, about 3,500 acres, he plans to follow regenerative practices.

Boersch was a featured speaker at 2020 Prairie Organics, a conference held in early March in Brandon. During his talk, Boersch said regenerative brands and labels aren’t a threat to organic. He believes the two production systems can rise together.

“Is the regenerative movement taking away from the organic value proposition? I don’t think so,” said Boersch, who’s in his late 20s and worked for two and a half years as a grain trader for DG Global, before returning to the family farm in 2017.

“I think it’s helping revolutionize how the food system thinks about grain production and food production…. In the end, what it comes down to is that our food system needs to change.”

Boersch and his dad, Andreas, grow a diverse rotation of crops on their farm, including wheat, oats, barley, peas, soybeans, lentils, canola and flax. They are fully committed to cover crops, intercropping and other tools to improve soil health — in their organic and regenerative systems.

Marketing their organic crops should be fairly simple. Organic wheat, peas and other crops garner a premium in the marketplace.

Regenerative is trickier.

Some proponents of regenerative agriculture argue the financial benefits come from better soil health, a more resilient system and less dependence on inputs, such as fertilizer and pesticides. So, no price premium is needed.

Others believe regenerative should have its own certification program and brand, which would compete with organic, natural, sustainable and other label claims in the food marketplace.

Boersch hasn’t chosen a regenerative brand to follow. But he’s interested in a model created by a non-profit in Boulder, Colorado.

Two years ago, the Savory Institute launched a program called Land to Market. It connects producers of meat, dairy, wool and leather to companies that want to buy food and fibre from regenerative farms.

“Land to Market is a game-changer that will lead the regenerative movement towards transparency, authenticity, accountability, and a deeper understanding of what regenerative agriculture truly means,” said Savory Institute co-founder and chief executive officer, Daniela Ibarra-Howell, in March of 2018.

The Savory Institute is named after Allen Savory, a farmer from Zimbabwe who developed the Holistic Management approach to agriculture.

A key piece of the Land to Market program is something called Ecological Outcome Verification. It tracks farmer performance for things like biodiversity, soil function and ecosystem function.

“Those farms and ranches demonstrating positively trending outcomes receive the Ecological Outcome Verification,” the Savory Institute says. “Verified farms and ranches will be entered into… a roster from which participating brands and retailers can access livestock-derived supply.”

The Savory Institute is considering a similar program for crop production, Boersch said.

“That’s a label that I’m really interested in. (It) gives you access to a database of buyers, who are interested in having the… label on their product,” he said at the Brandon conference. “There’s no premium attached to it. But it’s up to you to negotiate (with a buyer). One of the positive parts is… a lot more long-term contracts.”

He also likes that the program isn’t prescriptive. Land to Market focuses on outcomes and continuous improvement, rather than telling farmers what to do and what not to do.

Boersch used the word change many times, to describe his motivation and ambitions.

“What hopefully will happen is it (regenerative) will change the food industry a bit. And maybe change marketing opportunities for farmers.”

The Savory Institute isn’t the only group that’s trying to certify and brand regenerative agriculture. The Rodale Institute of Pennsylvania has devised a label called Regenerative Organic Certified.

It created the brand and program because some of its leaders thought organic farming was becoming stagnant.

“Organic is a fairly static standard. Once you become certified, you’re in the club and there’s no incentive to move beyond that or continuously improve,” Jeff Moyer, the institute’s executive director, told Civileats.com.

The Rodale Institute now has a pilot program for RO Certified, involving dozens of farmers across North America.

The blending of regenerative and organic might confuse a few consumers. But, over the long term, it will be beneficial for farmers, Boersch said.

If more organic farmers follow regenerative principles, it will validate the broader movement of alternative agriculture, he added.

“Right now, I think it’s too easy to dismiss organics. There has been some poor organic production. People that are just doing fallow rotations with grain production. That’s not any better than other production model,” he said. “I don’t think they (organic and regenerative) will compete, necessarily. I think this market will only grow, once people get more educated on where their food comes from.”

Contact robert.arnason@producer.com

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