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Regenerative vs. Sustainable Agriculture

Suterra May 2, 2023 11:11:05 AM

Sustainable agriculture has been a mainstream concept in farming for decades. However, in recent years, regenerative agriculture has become increasingly popular as a term. What is the difference between sustainable and regenerative agriculture, and when does it matter?

Sustainable agriculture

Sustainable agriculture is well-understood by most growers as a broad concept. While a legal definition is available, UC Davis provides a more concise definition for the practice:

“Sustainability rests on the principle that we must meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

As such, a sustainable agricultural system must maintain the many services that explicitly or implicitly make farming possible. Most commonly, this refers to ecological systems (such as soil health and populations of beneficial biota), but can also refer to other, more human-oriented systems, such as the financial sustainability of the farm and its employees.

There is a false dichotomy in the popular consciousness that sustainable agricultural systems are incompatible with profit-making. However, sustainable profit margins are integral to a truly sustainable farming system. Maintaining the ecological, social, and financial systems that keep a farm afloat allows growers and their families to continue producing great food decades into the future.

Regenerative agriculture

While sustainable ecological practices aim to preserve a currently existing agroecosystem, however, in some cases, the ecological framework to support sustainable agriculture is no longer in place. In these cases, regenerative agriculture may be a more accurate descriptor of a grower’s goal.

As sustainable agriculture maintains existing processes, regenerative agriculture seeks to rebuild the biological and chemical processes that may have existed at one point but diminished over time as the result of certain agricultural practices. Soil health, pollinator populations, and natural enemies of insect and mite pests are all examples of systems that may have been unintentionally degraded to the point that a regenerative approach is needed.

It is important to note that while the end goal of each philosophy may differ, the practical implementation of sustainable and regenerative agriculture is often very similar. For example, cover cropping is often cited as a key practice in regenerative agriculture as it restores the microbiome in the soil necessary to foster crop growth. However, cover cropping is also an important practice in sustainable agriculture, as cover crops provide pollinator habitat, reduce erosion, and improve soil health for the same reasons it is considered a staple of regenerative agriculture. In some cases, the difference between regenerative and sustainable agriculture may simply be a reframing of the same agricultural techniques.

Sustainable and regenerative agriculture in pest management

Pest management is a particular challenge in sustainable and regenerative agricultural systems. Insecticides are sometimes necessary but come with disadvantages. Broad-spectrum insecticides impact not only pests but beneficial pollinators and other invertebrates, preventing pollination and other ecosystem services from benefiting the grower. Additionally, excessive insecticide use can lead to the rapid evolution of insecticide resistance in target pests, creating so-called ‘superpests’ that are difficult to treat with the increasingly limited pesticides available to growers.

As such, integrated pest management has grown in response to these challenges. Integrated pest management uses a holistic, multifaceted approach to pest management to achieve consistent, long-term results. Cover cropping, trap cropping, and mating disruption, all established sustainable pest management techniques, are some of the many techniques under the umbrella of IPM.

When pests are treated in a species-specific manner, as with mating disruption, beneficial insects and other organisms are not adversely impacted - this has both sustainable and regenerative benefits. Pollinators are not harmed, promoting growth of crops and cover crops, and beneficial natural enemies of insects and mites can maintain their populations, providing ‘free’ natural pest control.

Planning for long-term sustainability can protect your orchards, vineyards, and fields for the seasons to come. If you have questions about mating disruption or other sustainable or regenerative agricultural techniques, our Suterra experts are happy to answer your questions. Contact us here or connect with your local representative.