Sustainable vs Organic vs Conservation vs Conventional Farming: Differences

This is a short guide that outlines the different types of farming/the different approaches to farming.

We outline the main difference between sustainable, organic, conservation and conventional farming.


Summary – Difference Between Sustainable, Organic, Conservation & Conventional/Commercial/Industrial Farming

Sustainable Farming 

A holistic approach that balances short term profit/financial priorities with longer term environmental priorities.

Can combine elements of organic and conservation farming

Read more about a list of the different sustainable farming practices here

Read more about the potential pros and cons of sustainable farming here


Organic Farming 

A specific type of farming that doesn’t use any GMO seeds, or synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Organic cotton is an example of an organic farming product


Some people estimate it takes about 30 percent less energy to grow organic soy and corn than it does to grow the conventional kind.

However, others say that organic crops and foods may take more land to grow because the yields (how much produce you get per acre or hectare of land) won’t be as high 

Organic overall does seem to be more environmentally friendly in many other areas though



Conservation Farming

A specific type of farming that aims to conserve soil and protect soil health


Conventional/Commercial/Industry Farming

Generally uses commercial fertilizers and pesticides, generally sees farming as a for profit commercial business, and includes large scale agricultural production.

One of the benefits of industrial type farming might be the scale of production to meet the needs for a growing population, however, there is a limit to production based on things such as limits with yields, limits with land available, and so on

Additionally, industrial farming can contribute to some environmental issues like water pollution for example

Some commercial and industrial farms may voluntarily choose to abide by certain sustainable or ethical standards and certifications with their farming practices, treatment of livestock, and so on


*Note that subsistence farming is also a type of farming done in some regions in the world.


Sustainable Farming

A newer form of farming which is that balances short term profit/economic priorities, with long term environmental (conserving soil and water, and minimising pollution), and social priorities. 

Can incorporate organic and conservation farming practices amongst the whole sustainable farming approach.

It’s a holistic approach that aims to get the different farm ecosystems working together – soil, water, green compost and manure, agroforestry, crops etc.

Read more about the different sustainable farming practices in this guide, such as planting cover crops, rotating crops, reducing tillage, and more.


Organic Farming

A more specific form of sustainable farming that involves a number of sustainable farming practices, but in particular, places emphasis on the use of green manures and compost over synthetic fertilizers, and the use of biological pest management over synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides.

Organic products can have their own guidelines and certifications that they have to meet in each country depending on regulations in that country.

There’s also global third party certifications for organic agricultural products.

Organically grown cotton is an example of an organic fibre crop.

These crops also make use of rainfed water, and don’t use GMO seeds.

Organic farming is seen by some and being difficult to implement practically on a large scale in for several reasons.


There may be several environmental and social benefits to organic farming though:


Organic farming helps to ensure other environmental and social goals [are met] 

[Some of these goals may relate to synthetic fertilizers and pesticide use, GM seed use, conserving water and lessening irrigation requirements, better biodiversity, and providing soil that can be a carbon sink]

[Some data provides evidence that] regenerative organic agricultural practices … can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions.


Conservation Farming

Specifically refers to farming that involves practices that conserve soil and protect it’s health i.e. conservation of the physical, chemical and biological soil properties.

In addition to soil fertility, soil health (preventing soil erosion, acidification etc.) and soil quality are considered.


Conventional/Commercial/Industrial Farming

Usually places profit and high yields as the main or sole short term priority, with much less of a focus on the impact of farming practices on the environment and society long term.

There’s smaller conventional/commercial farms, and then there’s the big industrial farms (sometimes referred to as intensive farming).

In developed countries, industrial farming uses big farm machinery, along with synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides and herbicides.

Pollution from fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are common side effects of industrial farming, along with soil erosion from practices such as intensive tilling and a lack of soil conservation.

Some commercial farms do incorporate sustainable practices with conventional practices to varying degrees.








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