Telling Organic From Regenerative

Our Taking “Stalk” of Sustainable Food Labels infographic gave you some insight into the labels you see when shopping, but you have probably heard other descriptive words for farming and food that don’t fit into those labels.

Have you ever wondered what regenerative farming is and how it differs from organic farming? What about regenerative organic farming? And what does it really mean when food is labeled as “natural” or “hormone free”?

We’re happy to help shed some light on these tricky terms for you!

Organic Farming

An organic farmer works day-to-day to grow healthy crops and raise healthy livestock in holistic ways that sustain and work in harmony with the environment.[1]

Organic farmers incorporate practices that help them eliminate substances you may not want to find in your food, such as pesticides, synthetic hormones and artificial colours.

For example, instead of using synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, which are a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, organic farmers use green manures, cover crops and compost to return nitrogen to the soil for healthy crops.

Products that are labelled as organic in Canada must follow the Canadian Organic Standards and be certified by an independent third party which guarantees that the food you are buying is free from synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and other potentially harmful substances. These standards are government regulated, industry-led, approved by consumers, and verified annually by accredited, third party certification bodies.

Some farmers and growers may choose to follow organic principles without becoming certified, but they cannot label their products with the “Canada Organic” label without certification.

Farmers might choose to practice organic farming because:

  • they want to support the health of the environment and climate
  • they enjoy working in harmony with nature and local biodiversity
  • they want to raise livestock in a healthy and humane way
  • they feel it’s important to offer the healthiest food possible to their communities and consumers

You might choose to shop and eat organic because you believe the same!

Things like textiles, clothing, pet food and health products can be made using organic practices, but they cannot be certified with the Canadian Organic Standards. If you are in doubt and it’s important to you, you may want to do a bit more research about a particular producer of these products before you shop!

Regenerative Farming

On a regenerative farm, the farmer is focused on growing crops and raising livestock in ways that regenerate and improve the soil and surrounding environment.

There are no restrictions on what inputs can be used in regenerative farming. This means a regenerative farmer can still use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. However the focus of regenerative farming is around a generally accepted set of principles which aim to improve soil.

These practices can include minimizing disturbances to the soil (like tilling), having diverse plants and animals in the growing space, and protecting the soil with things like mulch.

Organic and conventional farmers are adopting regenerative practices. Many farmers choose to practice regenerative farming because they want to support the health of their soil. This might be important to them for the sake of the future of their farm, our climate, or both!

Regenerative farmers do not require a specific certification. This can make it tough as a consumer to verify if what you are buying is farmed using practices you want to support.

As a consumer, you can always:

  • Ask the farmer questions – most farmers are happy to chat about their work
  • Visit the website of the farm before shopping and see what they have to say

Regenerative Organic Farming

Farmers practicing regenerative organic farming are weaving together the practices of both organic and regenerative farming. They are finding a balance that includes removing unwanted inputs from their farm, improving health of the soil, and working with nature.

Regenerative organic farmers can become certified through the Regenerative Organic Alliance. To achieve a Regenerative Organic Certified status, they must already have their standard organic certification as well, through the Canadian Organic Standards.

Colin MacDonald of Sylvan Lake Farms in northern Saskatchewan is a participant of Canadian Organic Growers’ Regenerative Organic Oats program (ROO). ROO is an opportunity for organic oat growers to adopt regenerative practices. Here is what Colin has to say about why they’ve chosen to embrace regenerative organic farming practices for their farm:

“We’re looking at our soils, we’re looking at what we’re doing, and we’re seeing over time that there’s some degradation to the quality of the soil. So we’re starting to look for other answers – how can we improve our fertility and reduce our weed pressures by improving our soil?,” says Colin, “We went searching and learned about regenerative practices, and thought well this is what we need to start implementing… We’ve been organic the whole way through – so this is taking it to the next level.”

As a consumer, you might choose products from regenerative organic farms because you believe weaving together organic and regenerative practices are beneficial for our food security, our climate future, and for your health!

You can learn even more about regenerative organic practices by clicking here.

A word about those other farming practices you see in store

You may also see products in stores that are labeled with words like ‘natural’ or ‘hormone free’. There are no regulations spelling out when these kinds of labels may be used.

Unfortunately, this means some corporations may use these kinds of labels to give the false impression they are using farming practices that consumers are looking to support. This manipulation is often referred to as ‘greenwashing’. When in doubt, asking questions and doing your research can help you figure out the truth. COG’s Organically Canadian hub is full of consumer resources like this one to help you make informed decisions.

We hope you feel armed with a bit more information to decide which farming practices you will choose to support and prioritize during your next shopping trip!

[1] Organic production systems — General principles and management standards. CAN/CGSB-32.310-2015. Introduction. I. Description