Organic farming means more consideration for nature, but also for our health and animal welfare. But how? It’s possible to farm organically or biodynamically, regeneratively or nature-inclusively, but what are the differences between these approaches? 

Triodos Bank only finances farmers farm organically or plan to go organic. Paul Kortekaas, team manager for agriculture and food at Triodos Bank in The Netherlands, describes these different farming philosophies. 

1. Organic farming 

Paul Kortekaas, team manager for agriculture and food at Triodos Bank in The Netherlands

Paul explains: "Organic farming is a resilient system that maintains soil health, ensures animal welfare and has fair prices. At the basis of organic farming are biodiversity, natural cycles and ecological processes." 

There are five central principles to organic farming: 

  • Organic farmers cultivate a fertile, living soil where crops on land are alternated annually, giving the earth time to rest.  
  • Organic farming does not use fertiliser, relying on animal manure and compost to build ecosystem resilience. This approach is circular, as waste products help support future growth. 
  • Biodiversity is nutured through natural crop protection 
  • Livestock have more space and live longer, spending much of their time outside. 
  • The use of antibiotics in animals is limited. 

To be certified as organic products need to strict requirements. This is overseen by SKAL (the organic regulator for The Netherlands). 

Paul understands that switching to organic farming can be a daunting prospect for the 'ordinary' farmer:  

"For the first two years, they need to invest a lot of time and money, working to meet the certification criteria. Sales will often fall due to lower yields, which they are still selling at a non-organic price.  Yet at Triodos Bank we see more and more farmers wanting to take the plunge.  Sometimes the first step is simply switching their lending, but we challenge our customers to think about what they can do beyond going organic, encouraging them to think about using renewable energy or reducing waste. We are also working to build a network of organic farmers, where customers can help and learn from each other." 

2. Biodynamic agriculture 

Biodynamic agriculture sees nature as a holistic system, in which soil, nature, humans and the cosmos are interconnected.   

This system goes a step further than organic farming, working  according to the seasons and considering the importance of celestial bodies like the moon, which influences not only the ebb and flow of growth, but also, for example, the water balance of plants. 

Paul explains: "It was biodynamic farmers who discovered that a waxing moon is favourable for planting, pruning or fertilising above-ground crops and a waning moon is actually favourable for the underground parts of plants."   

In terms of animal welfare, there are also stricter requirements for biodynamic farmers. The animals have more space to roam and live more naturally, with cows, for example, keeping their horns. Products from biodynamic farmers contain even fewer additives (often used to enhance  flavour or prolong shelf life).  Biodynamic farmers largely produce the feed for their animals themselves, working within a closed loop system. 

3. Circular agriculture 

Circular farmers also work on a closed system, using everything and aiming to leave no waste. Paul explains: "The premise of circular farming is that direct production of food crops is the most efficient. Animals support the health of the ground, making manure, which encourages plants to grow.  

“Keeping too many animals creates problems. If we start eating less animal and more plant-based protein, the livestock population would shrink and the farmland currently used to produce animal feed could produce food for humans. Transitioning to a diet based on more plant-based foods would also benefit public health." 

4. Nature-inclusive farming 

"Nature-inclusive farming is an approach that benefits the natural environment" says Paul. "It aims to increase biodiversity, through conscious land use, encouraging variety-rich grassland, wild field edges, wooded banks, hedges, trees and pools.. Farmers who practice nature-inclusive farming also use less manure and concentrated feed, use little or no pest prevention, and work to cultivate healthy soil." 

Nature-inclusive farming and circular farming, do not have their own certification label. Organic and biodynamic farming does have this and many of these farmers also farm nature-inclusively.

5. Sustainable agriculture 

This term is often used, but what exactly do we mean by it?  

Conventional farming systems place huge demand on resources, water and energy, harming the environment and affecting biodiversity and the landscape. To address this, the Dutch Government is encouraging farmers to reduce emissions and transition to more sustainable farming systems. 

Paul explains "For example, the Government is encouraging farmers to reduce emissions and use more circular animal feed. These are steps in the right direction, but for us, anything falling short of the organic principles, excluding chemical pesticides, does not go far enough." 

6. Regenerative agriculture 

Regenerative agriculture works to restore the soil. Healthy soil encourages plant growth, regulates carbon and supports good water balance. Crops grown on healthy soil also contain more nutrients. 

The soil of regenerative farmer Erwin Westers. Photo: Marie van der Heijden

"For years, agriculture has had a negative impact on soil, groundwater and biodiversity," explains Paul. "Regenerative agriculture looks at how this form of agriculture can have a positive impact on its recovery, working with a wide variety of crops, feeding each other and the soil. Ultimately, regenerative agriculture contributes positively to nature, benefiting the environment, climate, and food security." 

Triodos Bank finances regenerative agriculture if it is also organic or biodynamic.  A good example of a regenerative farm is Maatschap Westers. In 2002, owners Harm and Riet changed from conventional to organic farming, and in 2014 their son Erwin switched to a regenerative farming system. They grow produce with a high vitamin and mineral content and this year they have begun working the land as a biodynamic arable and vegetable farm.