The Agricultural Spectrum: Industrial vs Organic vs Regenerative
The Nature-Agriculture Continuum
Wendell Berry wrote, “eating is an agricultural act.” To consume with greater awareness of all that goes into the food we purchase might sound trivial, but in practice, few decisions could be more impactful on the wellbeing of every living organism.
In this article, we examine three common agricultural models - industrial, organic, and regenerative - to highlight their unique differences and impacts on the fertility of the earth. You can think of each of the distinct models as contributors to three separate food systems - each tasked with the important responsibility of connecting us, through what we eat, to the environment.
The diagram below demonstrates the continuum of farming practices employed by these models; chemical-dependent industrial operations sit on the far left of this spectrum and untouched natural systems sit on the far right.
The Industrial-Agricultural Complex
Since the end of World War II, the U.S. food chain has embraced mechanization in order to increase efficiency and profit. In doing so, it has propped up an industrial food system that a majority of Americans now rely on for sustenance. This technology-enabled model replaces its dependency on natural sunlight with a reliance on finite fossil fuels, tillage, chemical inputs, and genetically-engineered crops.
Similar to the “Military-Industrial Complex,” which represents the tight relationship between the military, defense industry, and Congress, the “Industrial-Agricultural Complex” embodies the dangerous relationship between agriculture, business, and the government. According to the USDA, in 2016, nearly 25% of net farm profit came from federal payments. For this reason, “farmers grow what the government pays them to,” writes Brian Barth, a reporter for the Modern Farmer. Unfortunately, the Farm Bill, which is produced by Congress every few years, allocates billions of dollars in subsidies and insurance payments to industrial-scale monocultures.
The emphasis on growing one or two low-margin crops has led to a system in which there is little impetus to grow much else. The U.S. government heavily incentivizes the production of commodities - corn, soy, and wheat - and disincentivizes the use of regenerative techniques like cover crops, crop rotations, and “no-till” farming.
According to Ronald L. Sandler, the author of Food Ethics, the following features are common across industrial production systems:
- Economies of scale - Consolidation and large-scale production are used to increase coordination and reduce cost per unit of production.
- Large actors - The primary actors involved are big corporations, international institutions, and national governments.
- Technological innovation - Technologies are readily adopted if they can lower costs.
- Standardization - Standardization of inputs (e.g. commodities and animals) along the supply chain increases the production efficiency.
- Commodification - All inputs of the system are valued in terms of their economic usefulness and are treated as substitutable.
- Cost externalization - Reducing unit price and increasing profits incentivizes passing on the costs (e.g. ecological or public health) of production processes to society as a whole.
- High-input needs - Intensive, large-scale production requires high levels of material inputs - e.g. fertilizers, machinery, and fossil fuels.
In short, the industrial food system is adept at producing inexpensive, highly processed, instantly available, mysteriously manufactured, and ready to consume goods. Industrialization has rapidly increased the number of calories available to humans while externalizing the damage it imposes on our health and ecosystems. Yet, proponents of the food production method still cling to two primary arguments to defend their position:
- Argument From Feeding the World - If the global population is expected to continue to increase in the coming decades, we must leverage innovation, science and technology to meet the challenge of efficiently feeding every human on earth.
- Argument From Preference Satisfaction - In economics, a system is deemed efficient to the extent that it satisfies preferences. The industrial food system is the only way to give consumers what they want, when they want it, at a price they are willing to pay.
Both of these notions are built upon shaky foundations. If the external costs (i.e., high water usage, fertilizer runoff, use of chemical inputs, tillage, etc.) were internalized into yield calculations, an industrial system would not be deemed the optimal food production method.
Moreover, the burden of feeding the planet is as much about food access, distribution and quality as it is about production. Rather than focus on producing more food, we first need to understand why more than 2 billion people suffer from nutrient deficiency and over 842 million people are undernourished. According to Sandler, the assertion that a system is justified to the extent that it satisfies people’s desires is, “underwritten by the value claim that satisfying preferences is good and frustrating preferences is bad, regardless of what the preferences are.”
The industrial food system is unapologetically anthropocentric in the sense that it only takes into account human preferences and disregards the essential needs of the broader ecosystem. In doing so, it presents a barrier to realizing the climate positive benefits in agriculture. Consumers may not realize it at the cash register, but cheap food comes with a steep cost.
The Tough Transition to Organic
Even though organic agriculture has existed for decades, and in 2019, organic sales in the food and non-food markets totaled $55.1 billion, there is still no universally accepted definition.
Organic farming is a model focused on keeping agriculture as pure as possible. It is a suite of production methods that preserves land and omits synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, growth hormones, antibiotics and other drugs incorporated into livestock feed.
The USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP), offers farmers the option to have their goods “Organic Certified”. Although, meeting the national standards requires producers to submit an extensive application and pay steep fees to a certified agent who is accredited by the USDA.
To receive the highly coveted organic badge, 95% of a good’s ingredients must be deemed organic and the land used to grow the product cannot have been farmed with any prohibited substances for at least 3 years. During this time, farmers grapple with weed pressure and decreased yields, while adapting to new techniques and finding alternative market outlets for their goods.
Even though consumer demand for organic products increases year-over-year, less than 1% of all U.S. cropland and pasture were certified organic in 2011. Critics of the NOP attribute this disparity between supply and demand on a cumbersome certification process, paired with the large, up-front costs of shifting to a new production method without a playbook to follow.
In 2016, to meet the U.S. demand for organic commodity grains, 50% of the organic corn and 80% of the organic soy had to be imported from countries like Romania, Turkey, and India. U.S. organizations like the Perennial Fund, Organic EQIP, Contract for Change, and Rabo AgriFinance have begun offering 36-month transition financing programs to incentivize domestic growers to make the switch to organic.
The Limits of Organic
It is worth highlighting that organic is not always better for the environment, especially when it comes to tillage - a technique used by growers to manage undesirable plants and incorporate manure and cover crops into soils. Instead of chemicals, organic farmers are reliant on tillage to control weeds. However, agitating topsoil is the most important driver of nitrogen loss into the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming. Researchers have also found that over tilling destroys natural soil structure and makes farmlands more susceptible to erosion.
Additionally, federal organic policies are also hazy when it comes to animal welfare conditions. Even though organic producers are mandated to allow livestock to graze outside on pastures for at least 120 days a year, there are loopholes for animals to be fed corn in confinement. Shockingly, the USDA only requires it to be organic corn. As the organic food sector has matured into a multi-billion dollar market, it has grown ripe for fraud. Over the years, The Cornucopia Institute has tracked large shipments of mislabeled grains that enter America from foreign countries without the amount of certified organic acreage to have produced the quantity delivered.
In 2017, The Washington Post reported on a shipment of 36 million pounds of soybeans that were shipped from Ukraine to California and sold as organic, even though they had been fumigated with pesticides deemed prohibited by the USDA. To make matters worse, in March of 2018, the Trump administration withdrew regulations that required higher production standards for organic livestock and poultry. Trump’s repeals allow for milk, eggs, and chicken to be marketed as organic, even if they are derived from factory-farmed animals.
A Reversion to Regenerative
Over the last two decades, the organic farming movement has laid the foundation for a food revolution predicated upon transparency and integrity. However, the organic certification regulations vague wording has led industry trade groups like the National Cattlemen's Beef Association to view the NOP as less of a welfare or health standard, and more of a marketing program. With large retailers ranging from Whole Foods to Walmart embracing natural products, we must re-examine if organic is still the best model for sustainable food production.
Critics have pointed out that striving for purity and sustainability in agriculture is no longer enough. Food producers must embrace more constructive farming techniques that enhance the growth potential of natural systems by actively sequestering carbon out of the atmosphere and into the topsoil. Because organic agricultural practices insufficiently reverse climate change, it is time to introduce a new byword for sustainability, ecosystem health, and human wellbeing.
Regenerative Agriculture is that term - it is a farming system built upon principles and practices that work in partnership with nature to:
- Produce natural, nutrient-rich foods
- Restore plant and animal diversity to our lands
- Regenerate soil and remove carbon from the atmosphere
- Make farming a resilient and profitable enterprise
Regenerative practices go a step beyond organic techniques by growing real, healthy food that increases profit for farmers and revitalizes the ecosystem it is grown in. In 2018, a group of researchers from the Ecdysis Foundation found that U.S. farmers with regenerative practices (cover crops, no-till, and grazed livestock on their cropland) had 29% lower grain production but 78% higher profits than those with conventional practices (annual tillage and application of synthetic insecticides).
White Oaks Pastures (WOP) and General Mills (which purchases the ranch’s meat for its EPIC provisions subsidiary) published a 2019 life cycle assessment of the beef operation. (The review process was carried out by Quantis, a third-party environmental consulting firm.) The researchers discovered that WOP systems:
- Yields net total emission of negative 3.5 kg of carbon for every kg of beef produced
- Has a carbon footprint 111% lower than conventional U.S. beef
- May have a net positive effect on the environment
No matter what your stance is on organic vs regenerative farming, we can all agree that education, paired with transition financing opportunities, are crucial steps towards a paradigm shift away from industrial agriculture. Through a regenerative approach to land and animal management, we have the opportunity to create a future where farmers can be environmentally responsible and profitable while growing healthy food that heals our planet.
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