cows in field

Organic Roots, Regenerative Growth: Uniting Farming Principles for a Sustainable Tomorrow

By Elizabeth Tobey, Organic Farming Research Foundation

In recent years, the term "regenerative agriculture" has surged into public consciousness, captivating both consumers and policymakers seeking sustainable solutions to the challenges posed by climate change. However, amidst the growing enthusiasm for regenerative practices, there is a pressing need to ensure its alignment with established organic agricultural principles. This urgency stems from the realization that not all practices labeled as "regenerative" truly embody the holistic, environmentally-conscious approach that the term implies.

Organic Agriculture: A Cornerstone of Regenerative Practices

Organic is an age old, holistic system of farming. Many organic practices are rooted in Indigenous land stewardship and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). Organic is principles-based, works with nature, builds healthy soil, and enhances clean water, biodiversity, and farm communities. Farmers have been using these practices since long before the terms "organic" or "regenerative" were coined. Yet, as a wave of climate-change awareness sweeps over decision-makers in food and agriculture policy, organic farming is often overlooked as a climate solution. It is imperative that organic farmers are recognized as the climate heroes they are, and that they receive federal funding and support accordingly.

The state of California is in the process of trying to define regenerative agriculture, claiming that incorporating a definition of regenerative agriculture for state policies and programs provides a science-based criterion for the designation or recognition of the term "regenerative" in agriculture-related policies of the state. In order to preserve the holistic essence of regenerative and avoid greenwashing it is essential that organic certification is recognized as a baseline. Organic certification provides a solid foundation for defining regenerative practices, ensuring measurable outcomes, contextual relevance, and universal applicability. If you’re interested in this process, the State Board has centered public input and we encourage you to get involved. The next Public Listening Session is Wednesday, May 29, 2024 at 4:30 p.m. PST and recordings of previous sessions are available on the CDFA website.

Understanding the Landscape

Although the term regenerative has gained traction, definitions vary widely. Currently the term does not have a legally binding definition or system for enforcement. Unfortunately, the lack of a legally accepted definition leads to confusion among consumers, dilution of the meaning, and vulnerability to greenwashing. For instance in some cases it is used to describe conventional agriculture that adopts a single conservation practice, such as no-till, and labels it regenerative. Changing one practice and calling it regenerative misses the mark of what truly whole-system, regionally-adapted, thoughtfully-practiced organic and regenerative agriculture can be.

Proponents of regenerative farming systems point to its focus on minimizing external inputs while maximizing practices that work with nature and the ecology. Organic farming does both of these things, and does them very well. They are part of what is legally required for organic certification. This is part of what makes organic a verifiable legal standard that can be relied upon in the journey towards creating more regenerative farming systems.

Aligning Regenerative Agriculture with Organic Certification

The symbiotic relationship between organic and regenerative agriculture is apparent when we look at the goals of both. The NRDC conducted a Scientific Literature Review of Journal Articles on the term “regenerative agriculture.” Looking at 229 sources they identified the 5 top cited practices associated with regenerative agriculture and their desired outcomes. They are: 1. Reduce Tillage (40.9%); 2. Integrate Livestock (40.9%); 3. Use Cover Crop (36.4%); 4. Use Crop Rotations (31.8%); 5. Low to no external inputs (31.8%). The top five desired outcomes were: 1. Improve Soil Health and Fertility; 2. Increase Carbon Sequestration; 3. Increase Biodiversity; 4. Improve Water Health; 5. Improve soil and/or economic wellbeing of communities. Organic agriculture employs these practices and achieves these goals. In short, organic farming practices support the same goals as regenerative farming: building healthy ecosystems and communities.

The Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) recently released a messaging toolkit, Organic is Regenerative, to help convey the ways that organic practices embody purported regenerative goals. The toolkit includes resources for organic advocates to share these messages with their networks, such as a social media kit, a slideshow presentation, an informational flier, and an introductory memo, as well as additional resources and science- and standards-based evidence supporting the messages. The toolkit is available at

In the toolkit OFRF identifies three pillars of organic agriculture and illustrates how they align with regenerative goals. These pillars are: Organic Agriculture Supports a Resilient Planet, Organic Agriculture Builds Healthy Communities, and Organic Agriculture is Trustworthy.

Organic Agriculture Supports a Resilient Planet

Organic farming holds tremendous potential to serve as a bulwark against climate change, fostering resilience and vitality in agricultural ecosystems. Through methods such as cover cropping, diversified crop rotation, and meticulous soil management, organic farmers bolster soil health, sequester carbon, and safeguard biodiversity. The emphasis on whole-system health underscores organic agriculture's role in nurturing a resilient planet.

Organic is Climate Friendly: By building healthy soils that retain water and store carbon, organic agriculture builds resilience and stabilizes our food supply in the face of drought and other extreme weather conditions that will occur with increasing frequency in a changing climate.

Organic is Healthy for Soils: Organic farming practices contribute to the long-term fertility of the soil. The deeper, more biologically active soils of mature organic systems that have higher SOC can improve crop and livestock resilience to drought and other weather extremes. (Lori et al., 2017, as cited in OFRF soils report, pg 24). Cover crops, a staple in organic farming, play a crucial role in soil protection and carbon sequestration. Studies have shown that nearly 90% of organic farmers incorporate cover crops into their rotations, resulting in reduced soil erosion and increased carbon storage.

Organic Safeguards Biodiversity: Organic growers prioritize crop diversity and intercropping, contributing to high levels of diversity in plant and animal communities above and below ground, and further enhancing ecosystem resilience and fertility. Research has found that organically managed lands have higher rates of both species richness and abundance when compared to conventional cropping systems.

Organic is Systems-Focused: Organic agriculture is based on whole-systems thinking, not on any single practice. The emphasis on whole-system health underscores organic agriculture's role in nurturing a resilient planet. As the Organic Farmers Association put it: “Organic farms are managed in concert with natural systems to enhance the ecology of our local ecosystems, including clean air, water, soil, and food.”

Organic Agriculture Builds Healthy Communities

Beyond environmental stewardship, organic agriculture fosters vibrant and thriving communities. The economic impact of organic farming reverberates throughout the supply chain, generating jobs and bolstering local economies. Moreover, organic practices prioritize the well-being of farmworkers, rural residents, and consumers alike, by minimizing their exposure to harmful synthetic chemicals used in conventional agriculture.

Organic is Good for the Economy: Organic agriculture provides economic benefits and opportunity for growth. The organic sector has witnessed exponential growth in recent years, with sales surpassing $60 billion in the United States alone. This surge in demand reflects a growing consumer consciousness about health, environmental sustainability, and social responsibility.

Organic is Safer for Farmworkers and Rural Residents: Organic protects the health of farmers, farmworkers, and people in agricultural areas by ensuring safer working conditions and healthier food options for consumers. Organic farmers guard health by avoiding nearly all synthetic pesticides and fertilizers commonly used in conventional farming, which ensures that people are less exposed to harmful chemicals, whether in their workplaces, in their communities, or at the dinner table. (NRDC report, pg 23)

Organic is Better for People: Eating organically helps protect people from toxic pesticide and herbicide residue on food products. Diet is a primary source of pesticide exposure. Data shows that pesticides disrupt healthy functioning of our bodies. Many of the pesticides widely used in our food supply are known to cause cancer, affect the body’s hormonal systems, disrupt fertility, damage children’s developing brains, or cause Parkinson’s, depression, or Alzheimer’s as we age. Organic farmers grow abundant food without the use of these toxic synthetic pesticides.

Given the cancer, neurodevelopmental, and other health risks associated with synthetic pesticides, organic agriculture is an important alternative approach for protecting farmworkers and their families.

Organic is Better for Animals: Organic farming prioritizes healthy animals. Organic management reduces stress in livestock, reducing the incidence of diseases and supporting animal welfare. Use of antibiotics and hormones is prohibited in organic production. Instead, organic producers must use holistic practices to maintain the health of livestock, such as providing a forage-based diet on certified organic pasture for at least 120 days per year; providing adequate space and year-round access to outdoors; allowing livestock to engage in natural behaviors; and choosing appropriate breeds based on site-specific conditions such as resistance to the region’s prevalent diseases and parasites. (Synthetic substances allowed for use in organic livestock production, 2018, and Livestock health care practice standard, 2018, as cited in CCOF report, pg 32, ref 267 & 268).

Organic Agriculture is Trustworthy

Central to the ethos of organic farming is transparency and accountability. Rigorous third-party certification ensures adherence to sustainable practices, providing consumers with confidence in their food choices. Organic agriculture's roots in traditional ecological knowledge underscore its time-tested efficacy, and the organic standards are designed to evolve and improve, ensuring continued relevance in a changing world.

Organic is Third-Party Certified: The National Organic Program (NOP) provides integrity and accountability. Organic farming has a clear and accepted legal definition which makes it a solid tool for holding farmers and food producers accountable to sustainable practices, and letting consumers know what they are supporting with their food purchases. In order to sell products labeled "organic" farmers and food processors must undergo a rigorous certification process which includes working with a USDA-accredited third-party certifier who reviews a comprehensive organic systems plan and conducts annual inspections. This level of accountability fosters consumer confidence and strengthens the organic market.

Organic is Non-GMO: Organic is the choice for consumers wanting to avoid GMOs. Organic certification prohibits farmers from using genetically modified seed and requires practices that prevent contact of organic crops with GMOs. To meet the USDA organic regulations, farmers and processors must show they aren’t using GMOs, and that they are protecting their products from contact with prohibited substances, such as GMOs, from farm to table.

Organic is Tried and True: Organic agriculture is time-tested and scientifically supported. Organic farming is not new, Indigenous Cultures the world over have been practicing organic methods of caring for land and cultivating crops since time immemorial. The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) created a National Organic Program (NOP) that provides a consistent framework and third-party certification system for agricultural products labeled “organic,” informed by decades of experience of farmers and ranchers, soil and plant scientists, food system workers, environmentalists, and consumers. (NRDC report, pg 4)

Organic is Evolving and Improving: The organic standards are designed to be responsive to changing needs. There are built-in pathways for improvement within the organic standards. Established by the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) and governed by the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), the NOSB considers and makes recommendations on a wide range of issues involving the production, handling, and processing of organic products. The NOSB also has special responsibilities related to the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances.

Looking Ahead

As one of the largest agricultural producers in the United States, California's approach to regenerative agriculture carries significant implications for the broader industry as we seek to transition towards more sustainable agricultural systems. This leadership role underscores the importance of aligning regenerative agriculture with organic certification and ensuring the integrity of sustainability claims in the marketplace.

Proponents of organic agriculture have worked for decades to establish the legal framework of the organic standards and certification process. We can build on this to cultivate a future where agriculture thrives in harmony with nature, nourishing people and the planet.