Opinion: Managing director of AbacusBio Ltd Anna Campbell takes a look at the arguments for and against regenerative agriculture and wonders why we can't all just get along?
The New Zealand Merino Company and wool brands Allbirds, Icebreaker, and Smartwool have announced they are working collectively with 167 sheep growers to create the world's first regenerative wool platform, which represents more than 1 million hectares in New Zealand.
Consumers want products produced through regenerative farming practices.
In the United States, the high-end supermarket chain, Whole Foods Market, declared that regenerative agriculture was the No 1 food trend for 2020.
Given some of the environmental challenges we have in New Zealand farming, regenerative farming surely makes sense from a production and marketing perspective?
Well maybe - it certainly sounds good, but do we understand what regenerative farming means and what it means specifically in a New Zealand farming context?
Regenerative agriculture was coined by Robert Rodale as a step-up from organic or sustainable farming.
He stated that "by marching forward under the banner of sustainability we are, in effect, continuing to hamper ourselves by not accepting a challenging enough goal."
Critics in New Zealand argue that regenerative farming was coined in response to destruction of soil matter in countries like the United States and South Africa where there are very different farming practices.
The critics believe the regenerative protagonists have misunderstood some of the fundamental science underpinning New Zealand's pastoral farming practices.
As an example, soil scientist Dr Peter Carey states in response to fertiliser critics "study after study has shown that judicious fertiliser application increases pasture production and builds quality soil organic matter, not destroys it, through the return of residues and excreta back to the soil. Even regenerative agriculture needs these mechanisms to be productive, or at least at a level that is profitable" (source: New Zealand Institute for Agricultural and Horticultural Science).
Prominent agricultural scientists Dr Derrick Moot and Dr Warwick Scott have said they are concerned about the "mythology" of regenerative agriculture "and its worrying increased profile in the New Zealand media and farming sectors".
Who has it right?
I choose to think about the regenerative movement at a fundamental level - regeneration to me simply means leaving land in a better state than it is now, by improving our farming practices and actively promoting certain activities.
That is not to say our existing practices are wrong, but it is to say they can be improved on, as is the case with most farming systems.
If we define regenerative farming as improving farming environments - not just sustaining - then what specifically needs improving, what do we need to measure and how do we improve farming practices accordingly?
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Anna Campbell on The Country below:
Increasing biodiversity, increasing shelter and reducing nutrient run-offs are all examples of practices both the regenerative protagonists and the critics would promote —are we all just arguing over a definition?
If we took the heat out of the debate, I suspect we would agree on more than we would disagree on.
We do have a major problem though, and it is not a new problem.
We are lacking the funding and the people (expertise) required for long-term scientific explorations of what regenerative practices might look like and how they might add to, complement, or replace existing farming practices.
Many of the farm systems scientists in New Zealand who understand soil, water, plant biology, biodiversity and the wider eco-system are over 50 years of age and have been battling funding shortfalls for years.
Complex farming systems are out of the realm of laboratory-based scientists who have consistently gained the largest proportion of agricultural scientific investment for decades.
New Zealand's short-term 3-5 year cycle of research funding does not lend itself to complex farming systems research either.
If we are serious about regenerative agriculture - improving farm environments - we need to put money where our mouths are at policy, research and commercial levels.
What I love about the regenerative farming movement is the innovation and the passion of the advocates.
They are willing to try new practices and share ideas widely; they are driven by an important purpose —to leave their land in a better pace than they found it.
Some of their trials will make a difference, others won't —trial and error are part of any innovative movement and they need data and scientific support to support their analyses.
What I love about reading the critiques of regenerative farming is the understanding of the complexities of soil structure, plant health and farming ecosystems.
I have learned from and worked with these scientists in varying capacities over my career and I never doubt their passion and commitment to improving New Zealand agriculture.
It is a crying shame these two groups are pitted against each other.
We need them working together with significant, long-term scientific funding from private entities and government to make a New Zealand regenerative stance meaningful - not just rhetoric.
Let's not fight over a word in our quest to be the best and pass on the best to future generations.
- Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin-based agritechnology company.