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Natural Awakenings Coastal Carolinas

From Organic to Grass-Fed to Regenerative: Finding the Best Farming Practices

Mar 29, 2024 09:28AM ● By Sara English
Assortment of fresh organic vegetables and fruits in wicker basket.

AlexRaths from Getty Images/CanvaPro

Embarking on a journey toward healthier eating often begins with a quest for a better understanding of food labeling and food sourcing options. For those taking their first steps into the world of healthy eating and sustainable agriculture, terms like grass-fed, organic and regenerative can be both intriguing and perplexing. Understanding these distinctions empowers consumers to make choices aligned with their values and priorities when selecting food products.

 

Conventional Farming

Conventional farming practices involve very heavy equipment, heavy tillage, and a lot of inputschemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides,” says Elizabeth Whitlow, the executive director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance. “Despite its high outputs, conventional farming does not necessarily guarantee nutritious, healthy crops.”

A majority of our meat originates from animal feeding operations (AFOs), where animals are commonly raised in confinement and fed genetically modified grains, as opposed to grazing or foraging in pastures or rangelands. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Manure and wastewater from [AFOs] have the potential to contribute pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus, organic matter, sediments, pathogens, hormones and antibiotics to the environment.”

 

Grass-Fed Beef

Grass-fed farming focuses on feeding livestock grass rather than grains and, in some cases, allowing them to forage for their food, which is considered more humane than AFOs. Rotational grazing, common in grass-fed farming, contributes to environmental sustainability by promoting soil fertility and biodiversity.

According to a 2019 review published in Nutrition Journal that compared the nutritional profiles of grass-fed and grain-fed beef, scientists from the California State University College of Agriculture noted that grass-fed beef tends to be lower in overall fat and higher in several heart-healthy fatty acids and antioxidants, including omega-3s, conjugated linoleic acid, precursors for vitamins A and E, and glutathione. The authors also note, “To maximize the favorable lipid profile and to guarantee the elevated antioxidant content, animals should be finished [fed before slaughter] in 100 percent grass or pasture-based diets.”

While there is no federal standard for a grass-fed label, third-party certifiers that may lend a level of reliability include the American Grassfed Association and A Greener World. Look for 100 percent grass-fed and grass-finished certification, and remember that a grass-fed label doesn’t automatically mean that the product is organic or regenerative organic.

 

USDA Organic Certification

Established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1990, the USDA Organic certification and farming practices focus on soil health, biodiversity and natural methods of pest and weed control, rather than using synthetic inputs like chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, as well as genetically modified organisms. According to the USDA, 17,445 certified organic farms operated a total of 4.9 million acres in 2021, amounting to less than 1 percent of U.S. farmland. From 2019 to 2021, sales of organic crops increased 5 percent to $6.1 billion.

A 2019 study published in the journal Environmental Research reported that an organic diet may reduce exposure to a range of pesticides in children and adults. A 2024 review of studies in the journal Food noted that certain health benefits have been associated with a higher consumption of organic foods, including a reduction in obesity, improvements in blood nutrient composition and a reduction in the development of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and colorectal cancers. Rodale Institute’s Vegetable Systems Trial, a long-term, side-by-side comparison of conventional and organic methods, is designed to analyze nutrient density and explore the links between soil health and human health.

 

Regenerative Farming

In addition to adhering to the core principles of organic farming, regenerative agriculture sets out to actively rejuvenate and improve ecosystems, nurture soil health, foster biodiversity and promote water retention, with the added benefit of sequestering environmental carbon by returning it to the soil. According to Kegan Hilaire, a small farms consultant for Rodale Institute, this type of farming prioritizes human health, farmworker conditions, animal welfare and animal integration into farming methods. Farms and products that bear the Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) label “meet the highest standards in soil health, animal welfare and social fairness,” Whitlow explains. As of 2023, 156 farms and about 1.1 million acres have received this certification, which is overseen by the Regenerative Organic Alliance, a nonprofit group of experts in farming, ranching, soil health, animal welfare, and farmer and worker fairness.

 

Voting With Our Pocketbooks

Hilaire points out that only about 1 percent of the U.S. population are farmers, fewer are certified organic or regenerative, and many small farms employ these methods without getting the official paperwork. “The best certification is meeting your farmer and deciding if you trust where your food is coming from,” he suggests.

Grass-fed, organic and regenerative organic foods each offer unique benefits, from improved nutrition to environmental sustainability. Every purchase becomes a vote for the kind of world we want to live in. By selecting products aligned with our values, we can collectively drive positive change in the food system and shape a healthier, more sustainable future for generations to come.

Sara English is the owner of Wild Roots Farm Marketing, a digital marketing firm for regenerative farmers and ranchers. Connect at WildRootsFarmMarketing.com.


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