Organic? Permaculture? Navigating Sustainable Farming and its Terminology

Why is Industrial Farming Bad? 

Regenerative agriculture, or ‘regen ag’, is a term making waves in some circles, but what does it really mean? As climate-consciousness rises many words are floating around and new terms, like permaculture and agroforestry, are joining older ones like organic and sustainable. What do any of these words mean? And why are they important in the first place? 

Land use causes a quarter of global emissions, with 8.5% coming directly coming from agriculture and 14.5% from changing land use such as wetland drainage and deforestation. In the UK, agriculture accounts for one tenth of greenhouse gas emissions. This breaks down to 56% methane from grazing animals like cows; 31% nitrous oxide from fertilisers; and the remainder as CO2 from diesel and other energy sources used in the farming process. 

Greenhouse gases aside, modern farming practices are also damaging to biodiversity and soil health. The Netflix film ‘Kiss the Ground’ outlines the damage to soil microbes when the earth is tilted for mono-cropping and the knock on effects this has on local wildlife. Globally, agriculture is responsible for 86% of species which are at risk of extinction. In the UK farmland birds have halved since 1970 and 15% of British wildlife species face extinction. 

What Needs to be Done?

A way to combat the effects of industrial agriculture – apart from reducing meat consumption – is to employ new agricultural techniques. This is where ‘regen ag’ comes in; a concept of farming that adds something to the local environment. 

Big chains and corporations are employing strategies to make their farmed products more regenerative. Waitrose are encouraging dairy farmers to give 10% of their land to biodiversity improvement, Nestle are helping 500,000 farmers to pursue regenerative practices, M&S is aiming to introduce 30 million bees to selected farm sites across the UK and Morrisons is aiming to be the first supermarket to use net-zero UK suppliers.  

Most large company regenerative plans apply only to the UK, and large global supply chains can obscure where products are coming from. Smaller retailers like Hodmedods and Kib Tea are able to guarantee regenerative farming practices because of their small supply chains. As such, organisations like Nature-friendly Farming, Land Workers Alliance, and Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF) are lobbying for smaller, contained and transparent supply chains. Buying products stamped  as Fairtrade is another good way of supporting regenerative production, as the organisation stipulates many environmental protections as part of their certification process. 

In the UK online searches for regenerative agriculture peaked in March 2021, but a survey conducted in May showed that only 14% of consumers have heard of regenerative agriculture. However, one in three people are concerned by farming’s impact on the environment and of that number nearly three quarters would be attracted to buying products which are branded as regenerative or sustainable. There is also broad support in the UK for farming initiatives that help the environment; 59% of people support sequestration of carbon in soil and 67% support planting more trees and hedgerows. 

However, although an initiative to verify regenerative products is being worked on in the US, the UK is far off such a trademark. In the meantime Go Eco has compiled a glossary below to help you navigate the various farming terms that mean your food might be a little better for planet Earth. 

Glossary

Organic: Organic farming uses organic fertilisers like compost manure and bone meal instead of synthetic ones containing nitrogen and phosphorus. Organic farming also focuses on crop rotation and companion planting.  

Permaculture: Permaculture is a circular, contained system which utilises existing water sources and uses its own waste as fertiliser. In a permaculture system animals and crops are farmed in tandem, with animals providing fertilisers, and carbon-sequestering crops allowed to grow to feed the animals in turn. 

Regenerative agriculture: Regenerative agriculture is a system where food is grown in such a way that benefits the local environment. Regeneration is a broad term and can be overused, technically for something to be regenerative it could be benefiting the local community rather than the environment.  

Sustainable agriculture: The goal of sustainable agriculture is farming without environmental degradation. The difference between sustainable and regenerative is that regenerative agriculture is focused on giving back to the environment whereas sustainable merely guarantees the longevity of the farming methods.

Agroforestry: Agroforestry is farming in congruence with planting and protecting trees. This can improve soil health and has the potential to protect crops from the elements. 

Intercropping: When crops are grown beside other plants, which can be either other crops or wild flowers and weeds. This benefits local biodiversity and soil health. 

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