Monday, 25 May 2020

Regenerative Agriculture: insight or soundbite?


The espoused benefits of ‘regenerative agriculture’ have captured headlines recently. Proponents argue that climate, soil health, waterways and food nutrition can all be improved by taking a regenerative approach. That’s quite a list for a cure-all.

Before we throw the ‘export dollar generating’ baby out with the ‘conventional farming bathwater’ it pays to probe beneath the buzzword.  Where did the concept come from and what is actually meant by the word ‘regenerative?’

The concept of regenerative agriculture originated from the justifiable concerns about how continuous arable cropping can degrade soils, an example of which occurred in North American wheat and cornfields. The notorious ‘dustbowls’ of the 1930s were the result of soil problems such as loss of organic matter, compaction, reduced water-holding capacity and diminishing fertility.

In many ways, all farm systems are ‘regenerative’ because farming is all about growing something in a process of renewal. Nutrients, sunshine and water combine to grow plants in soil. Grazing animals return organic matter to the soil, nutrient levels can be partly restored and seeds sown to start the process all over again. Growth is generated and regenerated across the seasons.

Perhaps a less ambiguous word than regenerative would be ‘restorative’ agriculture which is a phrase that has been around for nearly 20 years.  When it comes to environmental impacts, it pays to be clear on the difference between reduction and restoration. 

Reduction versus restoration

All human activity, including farming, has environmental impact. And the majority of New Zealand farmers are concerned about how to reduce those impacts.

Many farmers use precision tools to optimise fertiliser and manage their farm system to minimise soil and nutrient losses. Their focus is not only good for reducing environmental impact but is a more efficient way of farming, which is good for their bottom line.

Many don’t stop there. Farmers often go on to consider the bigger picture in riparian plantings, catchment management (working with others so ecosystems can improve at scale) and proactive ways to stimulate pollinators. These restorative efforts tend to cost money including potential foregone production. 

Of course, when it comes to smarter farming, there is a role for both reduction and restoration - just open any edition of the magazine Ground Effect to find a farmer who is ahead of the curve. One example of technology that has the potential for both reduction and restoration is the use of hyperspectral scanning in which New Zealand is becoming a world leader.

The scanning and modelling allow farmers to analyse the farm system considering slope and productivity so areas can be identified which may be suitable for retirement. This reduces impact in terms of soil erosion and potentially wasted fertiliser and the farmer can then plant trees or leave to native flora with the consequent climate gains and other restorative benefits.

Practical adoption for NZ setting

The regenerative agriculture movement has its origins in continuously cultivated farming systems. By way of comparison with organic production, which has a set way of managing farm processes that can earn or lose accreditation, regenerative agriculture is a set of scientifically untested principles that is much harder to pin down.

However, there are ‘regenerative’ practices that already are incorporated into more conventional farming systems and that could be adopted by even more farmers and growers.  One example might be using technologies like minimum tillage and direct drilling in our arable farming systems, as well as more restorative phases i.e., periods of grazed legume/grass pastures within their cropping rotations. 

An example of a regenerative practice that may have a negative impact if every farmer were to adopt it is inappropriate rotational grazing - allowing pasture to grow longer and leaving more pasture after grazing than New Zealand research recommends. The result is less pasture quality, less production efficiency and less organic matter cycling as soil organisms adjust. Greenhouse gas and nitrate loss per unit of milk or meat produced have been shown to increase under this scenario in comparison with the New Zealand optimised system.

Conventional farming and COVID-19 recovery

Many of the admirable concepts behind regenerative agriculture are much more alien to hyper-intensive feedlot systems - in America for example – than to the average Kiwi farmer.  In New Zealand, our much-studied, grazed-pasture systems dominate our rural landscape and are the envy of much of the agricultural world.

Nobody is saying improvement is unnecessary or impossible. But the risk is that an easy catchphrase, wishful thinking and an anti-science disposition holds back the export-earning, environmentally considerate conventional farming systems of New Zealand.

Farming in New Zealand is rightly a ‘broad church’ where choice is vital. With all our varied terrain, soils and climate, the truth remains there is no one right way to farm in New Zealand. But whether it is adopting practices that are organic, conventional, biological or regenerative, the choice should be an informed one.

As the long road to a COVID-19 recovery begins and the New Zealand economy is restructured around more sustainable sectors, the answer lies in farming in smarter ways. There may be disagreement on what smarter looks like, but that’s what research, evidence and debate is for. Let’s not limit ourselves to lazy labels, because the issue is just too important. 

The next edition of Ground Effect in August will feature a more detailed analysis of regenerative agriculture.