What are the differences between Regenerative agriculture, Organic and Agroecology?

The regenerative agriculture, organic and agroecology movements agree that current farm production practices are in part responsible for the environmental problems we face today. Though they offer some similar solutions, they also differ in the historical contexts in how they formed and which food systems stakeholders champion them.

TABLE collaborators Dr George Cusworth (U Oxford) and Rachel Carlile (U Edinburgh) worked with graphic designer Emily Liang (WUR) to develop a diagram articulating these agricultural movements’ similarities and differences.

We’re really interested in hearing your feedback on what we got right, and what we didn’t, especially if you identify with one or several of these agricultural movements.

Here’s a snapshot of the diagram, though we encourage to visit the webpage to view an interactive version of the diagram that offers detailed descriptions of each movement’s views on scale, consumption, farm inputs, geographical context and key stakeholders.

Please share your comments below!

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I found this really useful in helping me to clarify the similarities/differences between these three movements. Thanks to those who produced it :slight_smile:

While I haven’t any criticisms/constructive comments about the diagram itself, I hope it’s ok to share some thoughts it prompted in the interests of opening up a conversation…

To me it seems that a key difference between the three concerns public awareness/visibility. I suspect if you asked a random sample of “average” supermarket shoppers (at least in the UK) most would be familiar with “organic” but perhaps unaware of the other two, or at least less clear about their meanings. Based on the text descriptions of each movement which accompany the diagram, it looks like Regenerative Agriculture is also keen to enhance its public visibility – development of accreditation schemes is mentioned. I’m sceptical of whether this will gain much attention, though, at least compared to the long-established “organic” label. There are so many accreditation/labelling schemes now – I suspect many consumers are a bit overwhelmed by them all and perhaps haven’t the capacity to engage with any more.

Each of the movements undoubtedly means somewhat different things to different stakeholders. I would say this is particularly the case with organic. To some extent this is due to wider awareness – the more people know about it, the more space there is for divergent views. I recall years ago (perhaps early 2010s? I’ll see if I can find refs) there was a load of hype in the news about organic food not actually being any healthier than non-organic, which confused me greatly (I wasn’t particularly engaged with/knowledgeable about food production at the time) because I had not realised it was alleged to be healthier; I thought it was purely an “environmental” thing. Would be interesting to know more about how consumers perceive “organic” now.
Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) gives a good overview of how far organic has changed since it’s origins, outlining the rise of “Big Organic” with far less to distinguish it from the kind of industrial agriculture it originally sought to replace. He suggests that initially it was a whole philosophy rather than just a way of farming, and also embraced modes of distribution (food co-ops) and consumption (“countercuisine”). These two elements have somewhat fallen away (though undoubtedly some proponents of “organic” continue to advocate them), leaving only the food production side. Are the ideas around distribution & consumption from the early organic movement now more associated with Agroecology?

I’d be interested to know more about the development of Regenerative Agriculture – I am less familiar with its history than that of the other two. While I’m sure it can trace earlier origins, I feel like the term itself has only risen to prominence in fairly recent years? This is something I will investigate further…

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Hi Rendzina,

None of these agricultural movements have a centralized hub where information flows out of (which is among the reasons I really liked Emily’s design!). They each take on different shapes across the world. Organic is probably the closest to have a unified view, but it’s certainly not a monolith.

I say this because I’m about to share a few articles on regenerative agriculture, which might be helpful in understanding its history and where it might go in the future. But they are each different, and not definitive, understandings of RA.

Outlook on Agriculture: Regenerative Agriculture: An agronomic perspective
Global food security: Regenerative agriculture - the soil is the base
The Counter: Regenerative Agriculture needs a reckoning

And I’ll also plug a TABLE event we hosted on "A dialogue on Regenerative agriculture: why is it taking the world by storm with Ken Giller (author of RA: an agronomic perspective) and Yichao Rui (Rodale institute), moderated by Tara Garnett.

I think you are right that “organic” has changed as it has become more mainstream. That is the danger with any “movement” that seems to have economic potential - some businesses will take it and run, diluting or distorting what it was originally. I still think that can be useful sometimes - when large agro-companies promote and support organic or regenerative practices well, they can put a lot more resource behind the farmers and support them through the transitions which can be expensive and fraught. They can help make healthier, more sustainable food more affordable and accessible. But we need good policy to help define, maintain, monitor and promote beneficial practices and prevent the inevitable “greenwashing” as much as possible.

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I certainly hope that regenerative agriculture is “talking the world by storm”!! I think we have a long way to go, especially in the US with its intensive farming culture and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, in places like sub-Saharan Africa where the grinding poverty and long-term environmental degradation will require rich countries to stump up a lot more than they are now to help the land recover and people flourish.

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I miss the vegan-organic movement and more generally the relation between humans and other animals (both free-living and domesticated). Biodynamic certification for example requires the use of (products derived from) domesticated animals. (this was my response on twitter, copy pasted here as requested by Table).

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This is an interesting point. My general impression (note that I didn’t contribute to making this diagram and the authors might disagree with me) is that the regenerative ag movement emphasises meat consumption as beneficial to human health, more so than the organic and agroecological movements. The vegan-organic movement seems to have gained less public attention than the other three so far - do you agree?

Yes I would agree, especially with the focus on regenerative grazing. I think Nassim Nobari has written some interesting things about this (e.g. A Call to Counter the False Solution of Regenerative Grazing – Seed the Commons). I think it is often falsely believed that vegan organic agriculture means that nonhuman animals play no role, whereas nonhuman animals are crucial there as well. The difference is that interspecies relations are symbiotic and not hierarchical such as when humans own other animals (even domestication can be symbiotic, when this is not forced, e.g. when feral cats self-domesticate). Vegan agriculture can be agro-ecological as well, so they are not mutually exclusive.

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More so than the other movements, the vegan-organic piece is dogged by questions of ‘can it feed the world’. I.e. what does a sustainable food system look like without either the fertilisation offered by animals or mineral nitrogen.
The point about corporate capture/mainstreaming is also an interesting one - with RegenAg seemingly poised to make its way into the purchasing policies, supply chain management initiatives and marketing materials of some of the world’s largest food companies. Which of the movement’s principles and practices will be preserved as it is made to fit into their objectives? The optimistic perspective is that if those companies nudge their suppliers to adopt even a regen-lite set of practices, and force them to begin their ‘regenerative journey’ then they might be able to effect some real and positive change.

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Thanks for all the interesting comments. I would definitely agree that some of the ideas around distribution and consumption from the early organic movement are now more associated with agroecology. Perhaps this awareness of the history of organics is what generates such concerns about greenwashing among many in the agroecology movement? @Rendzina
It is interesting to think about the ways that conceptualisations of interspecies relations differ across movements. I think this is probably where organic and agroecology overlap more closely @Anne_van_Veen ?

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I think this is a really useful visualisation that really helps to show the interconnections and overlaps.

My only critique is that agroecology and regenerative seem to have been assessed on their broadly stated aims, whilst organic has largely been framed through the lens of certified organic. It’s important to recognise that organic is a movement, based on the principles of Health, Ecology, Fairness and Care. So the organic flows should incorporate the social dimensions of the diagram as well. Even though these aspects aren’t well addressed by organic regulation, many of them are addressed in practice. IFOAM Organics International Best Practice Guideline is a useful reference document: Best Practice Guideline for Agriculture & Value Chains | IFOAM as is the Organic Movement’s vision for Organic 3.0 (moving beyond just a market conception of organic) Organic 3.0: For Truly Sustainable Farming & Consumption | IFOAM. Both these documents were developed for and by the international organic movement so make for accurate reference docs.

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This is really useful Thanks for sharing.

To follow up on Anne’s comment, it would be interesting to add farmed animals to each diagramme, and looked at husbandry practices that each movement advocates for, if any, and their relation the the One Health Concept, particularly if it looks at safeguarding the welfare of farmed animals.
As we know organic eggs does not mean good welfare for animals. Even if movements do not have any positions on animal welfare/animal husbandry it would be interesting to add farmed animals/livestock and the lack of AW/husbandry guidelines to the diagramme of each movement.

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As others have said a fascinating graphic. It might be worth taking it on one more stage to show impact on food supply, greenhouse gas emissions , work load, waste, and flora and fauna. The indirect outcomes should perhaps all be shown per unit of food energy/protein produced perhaps relative to the current system.

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Yes, its a valuable contribution, but why those three movements and not Climate Smart and Conservation Agriculture(s)…different?

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Hi everyone - a great and interesting discussion being had around these movements and ideas! I’ve recently co-authored a paper on regenerative agricultural discourses and the opportunities they pose for transforming food systems. I think it is a good contribution to this discussion in terms of building more clarity around what regenerative agriculture is, and therefore how it may differ from organics and agroecology. You can find the article here - ‘transforming landscapes and mindscpaes through regenerative agriculture.’

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As others have said, why is Veganic not on this flowchart? Veganic practitioners, though few and far between, get good yields. In the Veganic system animals or insects and intertebrates play a vital role. Fertiliser is provided by intercrops.

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The flow chart takes these three movements at face value. The regenerative grazing lobby comes across as ranching industry greenwash to protect its interests, rather than a genuine attempt to reduce human impact of agriculture on nature. The leader of regenerative grazing claims that by increasing cattle stock density the soil will capture more carbon and biodiversity will increase. These claims have never been validated.

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Thanks for your comments, @LJB!

On taking the movements at face value: our Explainer series aims to go beyond this and look at the contestations around key topics. @Rachel_Carlile and @Tara_Garnett have done this for one of the movements featured on the graphic - see What is agroecology? We can look at doing Explainers for regenerative and organic farming at some point in the future - so thanks for your feedback. You may already know our 2017 report Grazed and Confused, which assessed the claims and counterclaims around the carbon sequestration potential of grazing livestock.