A Primer on Sustainable Agriculture

If you’re interested in knowing more about where your food comes from, you might have encountered a number of terms regarding non-conventional growing methods that are meant to be healthier for humans and the environment,  and to deliver more nutritious and better tasting products. Understanding all of these different methods, certifications and labels, however, can be a challenge if you’re not sure what they mean, or how they differ. Although all of these terms have some degree of overlap, and are often used interchangeably (correctly or not) they do have principles that distinguish them from one another.  Here are a few pointers to help you sort it all out, and hopefully cut down on some of the confusion.  


is a broad term that  refers to non-conventional methods of farming aiming to sustain or protect, rather than degrade natural systems that are fundamental to growing food, such as soil, water and air, and to support biodiversity.  Sustainable farming seeks to maintain the quality of these resources, while at the same time seeking to maintain the productivity and profit of the farm itself, in a way that ensures its ability to continue operations.


indicates a method that goes a step further than sustainable farming in its objective to actively restore and improve these same systems, using technologies that restore damaged soil and help to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration, or the process of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Besides reversing the warming of the planet, these practices have been shown to result in more nutrient dense food, greater yields, and an overall increase in farm productivity. Regenerative agriculture includes a variety of practices, including minimization of tilling, use of cover crops, composting, and managed grazing for livestock. 

Tomas Hertogh



rejects the use of synthetic fertilizer or pesticide inputs on crops, or the use of antibiotics and growth hormones in the raising of livestock. 


is an official government certification designating which specific fertilizers and other chemical inputs can or cannot be used in growing crops.  Growers are required to document the practices required for the USDA Organic certification and pass periodic inspections in order to use the label. Labeling categories for organic products are explained on this USDA website. 

  1. 100% organic--products must be made up of 100 percent certified organic ingredients.  The label must include the name of the certifying agent and may include the USDA Organic Seal and/or the 100 percent organic claim.
  2. Organic— any product that has a minimum of 95% organic content by weight.
  3. Made With Organic –at least 70 percent of the product must be certified organic ingredients.
  4. Specific Organic Ingredients —Products with multiple ingredients and less than 70 percent certified organic content. These products use the USDA Organic Seal or use the word organic. They can list certified organic ingredients in the ingredient list and the percentage of organic ingredients. 


is an indication that the plants or animals used in the food are not GMO.  GMO stands for “Genetically Modified Organism, in which the genetic makeup has been altered in its production.  To give an example, some plants have been genetically engineered to resist chemical inputs, so that herbicides can be applied to crops for weed control without killing the crop itself. The Non-GMO label is an indication that the food has been produced without such treatment. Certified organic products are non-GMO,  because any use of GMO products would disqualify a food for organic certification. Non-GMO doesn’t necessarily mean that something is organic, however, because non-GMO foods might still involve non-organic inputs such as herbicides, pesticides, artificial flavorings, preservatives, etc. 


Zoe Schaeffer



is not necessarily certified organic, “…but follows the principle of putting healthy soil biology first, and not using synthetic inputs–in essence, following organic protocols without the formal certification.” (Start Your Farm by Forrest Pritchard and Ellen Polishuk)  


is a method introduced by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920’s, which integrates principles of organic agriculture with observation of the cosmos, using a calendar based on the position of the stars and the moon. It emphasizes nourishment of the soil to facilitate the healing of the earth and to achieve a balance between all living organisms on the planet. 


is a term that was first coined by Bill Mollison in the 1970’s , and defined in this way:  “The conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive systems which have the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of the landscape with people providing their food, energy, shelter and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”There are 12 basic principles of permaculture, emphasizing observation and design, creating systems that are intended to function in harmony and partnership  with nature, as opposed to dominance and control. 

To learn more about these terms and the whole topic of sustainable agriculture, see the list of resources below.



Savory Institute 
Rodale Institute
Regeneration International 
Start Your Farm by Forrest Pritchard and Ellen Polishuk
The Good Dirt Podcast
Wisdom From the Wild with Doniga Markegard
Regenerative Agriculture with Arden Jones & Michael Grantz of Great Day Gardens
The Permaculture Handbook by Peter Bane
Practical Permaculture by Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein
What is Biodynamics? A Way to Heal and Revitalize the Earth by Rudolph Steiner
Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway
Podcast: How to Save a Planet,  Episode “The Dirty Climate Solution” 
Tedx Talk with Gabe Brown/ Regeneration of Our Lands