Comment: The idea that moving to regenerative agriculture with an organic focus will create a primary sector with more ability to help with Covid-19 recovery is wonderful in theory, but doesn't work in practice, writes Dr Jacqueline Rowarth.

In a Utopian world, Greenpeace's vision of a cleaner, higher-value and more resilient primary sector could be achieved by switching to Regenerative Agriculture with a "plant-based" and "organic" focus.

The vision involves two of the government's goals: moving the economy from volume to value and ensuring land use delivers greater value and better environmental outcomes.

In the supporting document for the request to the government to invest a billion dollars in helping farmers adopt new practices, "regenerative" is mentioned 45 times. "Organic" appears 70 times.

Advertisement

The push towards organic production systems recognises the premium prices that they sometimes achieve. Examples in New Zealand can be found within the kiwifruit and wine industries.

Kiwifruit and wine provide vitamins and pleasure but do not contain high quality protein and are not staples in the food basket like meat and milk. This year organic milk is in the news because it might be about to hit a record high – making the point that this is unusual.

Complaints about the expense of food are common because people are price-sensitive.

The premium that non-luxury organic produce attracts is not always sufficient to cover the increased costs of production at least in part because yields are generally lower than those achieved conventionally. This applies not only to plants but also to animal products.

Greenpeace wants diversification into more plant-based foods and fibres grown using regenerative methods and a cut in ruminant livestock numbers.

Their press release earlier this month warned that "nitrogen pollution from the livestock sector poses risks to human health and the environment, from water and air pollution to worsening the climate crisis".

The study quoted as the basis for the release was published in Nature Food this month and examined the global livestock supply chain.

Authors concluded that the livestock sector emits one third of all human-induced nitrogen pollution.

Advertisement

Of that one-third, 66 per cent originates in Asia. Not mentioned in the Greenpeace alert is that New Zealand was shown to be an extraordinarily efficient producer of animal protein.

The conservative value of export earnings from meat and dairy in New Zealand is approximately $23 billion and embedded N emissions are 4 per cent of the global load. Australian exports are approximately NZ$18 billion generating 21 per cent of the N emissions traded.

New Zealand's efficiency is in jeopardy if the wish for regenerative agriculture is granted.

Current advocates of the regenerative concept use Brix to measure plant metabolisable energy and the Albrecht-Kinsey system to analyse soil. They also promote lax grazing of multi-species pastures.

MPI funded research has shown that Brix and the Albrecht-Kinsey system are inappropriate in pastoral agriculture in New Zealand, resulting in time spent for decreased value.

An MPI funded review reported that lax grazing results in a deterioration in pasture quality. Multi-species beyond six (different growth habits including flowering times creates competition and death) does likewise.

Advertisement

Poor pasture quality is associated with increased greenhouse gases due to less than optimal animal performance.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied
Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied

Further, economic analysis over a 10-year period in Australia reported in May that Return on Assets Managed was 1.66 per cent for regeneratively-managed sheep farming in comparison with 4.22 per cent for conventionally managed operations.

The realities make Utopia difficult to achieve.

Also overlooked by Greenpeace is the statement in the Nature Food article that any reduction in animal food production "should not come at the expense of food security".

The Nature Food authors are clear that animals build food systems and income streams, while providing resilience to climate change.

Other tools in resilience are nitrogen fertiliser, pesticides and irrigation, yet Greenpeace is promoting reduced use of these tools in the move towards "Organic".

Advertisement

Another downside is the 50 per cent reduction in food that would occur. An increase in price of food and in malnutrition would follow. It is in the countries where nitrogen, pesticides and water are most limited that most hunger is found.

Removing animals would exacerbate the problems for both protein supply and environment.

On the Canterbury Plains, dairy production meets the protein needs of four times more people from a given land area than can be met by wheat, using a quarter of the water and no more than one tenth of the N loss.

Canterbury-based nutrition scientist Dr Graeme Coles points out that these figures are not what are usually promoted.

"There have been some big assumptions and some major miscalculations in the past," he says.

"The future requires us to consider all information as we try to provide a sustainable world with adequate nutrition."

Advertisement

Dr Coles has also calculated the effect of a plant-based diet.

"Vegans have to eat a good deal more food to obtain the essential amino acids they need, and so their excretion of waste nitrogen is significantly greater than for omnivores. This means that GHG emissions from the global dairy herd are far more than offset by the emissions saved through more effective human nutrition."

Greenpeace is not alone in the goal of trying to create a better world. Many farmers also have aspirations, which is why they strive to produce food sustainably and efficiently. And farmers know the realities in food production.

People need affordable food: Organics come at a premium.

People need protein: the building block is nitrogen and animals are the most efficient providers.

• Dr Jacqueline Rowarth is a soil scientist and a farmer-elected director for DairyNZ and Ravensdown. This analysis is her own. jsrowarth@gmail.com

Advertisement