A new white paper says there is significant overlap on the continuum of practices between mainstream and regenerative agriculture.
Among its conclusions is that there is a pressing need for scientific testing of the limited evidence and anecdotal claims being made by regenerative agriculture practitioners and proponents.
Lead author Dr Gwen Grelet, a senior researcher at Manaaki Whenua/Landcare Research, says that although that evidence is urgently needed, regenerative agriculture potentially has an important role to play in New Zealand.
“Regenerative agriculture has huge momentum internationally in all parts of the food system. It is not a magic bullet but its grass-roots popularity with farmers and food consumers mean it has huge potential for driving the transformation of Aotearoa’s agri-food system to move our country closer to its goals.
“Our consultation found many areas of strong agreement between advocates and sceptics. It’s time to stop bickering and focus on identifying any true benefits regenerative agriculture might have for New Zealand.”
Other key points:
• The white paper, Regenerative Agriculture in Aotearoa New Zealand – Research Pathways to Build Science-Based Evidence and National Narratives, sets out 17 priority research topics identified by 200+ representatives of New Zealand’s major agricultural sectors, regenerative agriculture farmers, and professionals in the wider agri-food system.
• It introduces 11 principles for regenerative farming in New Zealand emerging from farmer focus groups, applicable to all sectors.
• Regenerative farmers appear likely to question the status quo, and look for new opportunities and different ways of living, working and improving their farming system.
Regenerative agriculture has been proposed as a solution for some of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most acute challenges. Advocates suggest it can improve the health of our waterways, reduce topsoil loss, offer resilience to drought, add value to our primary exports, and improve the pervasive well-being crisis among rural farming communities.
With a groundswell of farmers transitioning to regenerative agriculture in New Zealand, there is an urgent need for clarity about what regenerative agriculture is in New Zealand and for scientific testing of its claimed benefits.
The white paper is the result of intensive collaboration and consultation with more than 200 people from June to November 2020. Collaborators include farmers and growers, researchers, primary industry bodies, banks, retailers, non-governmental organisations, government departments, large corporates, consultants, marketers, overseas researchers and educators.
The project was funded by the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, the NEXT Foundation and Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research.
What is ‘regen ag’ and what does it mean for New Zealand?
While a succinct definition of regenerative agriculture would be useful for marketing purposes, the white paper refrains from offering a definition for two reasons: the risk of constraining an evolving concept, and the need for any New Zealand definition to be anchored in te ao Māori (the Māori world view). Collective work by Māori experts and practitioners is currently in progress to identify linkages between te ao Māori cultural concepts and regenerative agriculture principles.
“Our research examined people’s understanding of regenerative agriculture through outcomes, principles, practices and mindset,” says research co-lead Sam Lang, farmer and manager of the Quorum Sense farmer extension project. “We found that all are important. While it is tempting to focus on novel or innovative practices, exploring the influence of farming principles and farmers’ mindsets could be more valuable.”
The paper sets out 11 principles for regenerative farming within the farmgate in New Zealand, with strong alignment between the pastoral, arable and viticulture sectors:
(1) The farm is a living system,
(2) Make context-specific decisions,
(3) Question everything,
(4) Learn together,
(5) Failure is part of the journey,
(6) Open and flexible toolbox,
(7) Plan for what you want; start with what you have,
(8) Maximise photosynthesis year-round,
(9) Minimise disturbance,
(10) Harness diversity,
(11) Manage livestock strategically.
Developing specific “regenerative practice” guidance for New Zealand’s many different primary sectors and geophysical contexts is a huge challenge, says the white paper, but one that may be necessary. The current complexity of information or misinformation on regenerative agriculture was identified as a barrier.
Farmer focus groups involved in the research identified ‘mindset’ as a defining characteristic of regenerative agriculture, seeing it as an important factor when working with complex living systems. Regenerative agriculture practitioners appear more likely to question the status quo, and look for new opportunities and different ways of living, working and improving their farming system.
A scientific framework for guiding regenerative agriculture research in New Zealand
Anecdotal evidence for the benefits of regenerative agriculture in New Zealand is growing. Regenerative practitioners are recording their observations and sharing them via social media and on-the-ground, farmer-led events. There is high demand for scientific testing of these observations and reported benefits.
The white paper finds support for 17 priority research topics identified by representatives of the major agricultural sectors in New Zealand, regenerative agriculture practitioners, and professionals in the wider agri-food system.
Representatives of four NZ major primary sectors are asking for research on how regenerative agriculture impacts: (1) Freshwater outcomes; (2) Food quality and safety; (3) Farmer empowerment and mindset; (4) Long-term viability of whole systems; (5) Animal welfare; (6) On-farm all taxa (total) biodiversity; and (7) Soil carbon. They also asked researchers to assess how regenerative agriculture might increase (8) Resilience; (9) Accountability in our food systems and (10) Access to premium/niche markets.
Regenerative farmers highlight the need for scientific studies on how regenerative agriculture affects: (11) Soil health; (12) Profitability and production; and (13) Whole-of-system environment, social and economic outcomes at farm-scale.