The values and mindset of farmers are key to regenerative farming practices, according to a new white paper released today by a country-wide group of researchers in New Zealand.
The paper identified key research topics for further study to improve understanding and practice of regenerative farming, as well as outlining the core principles of this mode of agriculture.
The authors said that while regenerative farming was not a "magic bullet", it did have potential to help move New Zealand towards its sustainability goals.
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 and introduces 11 principles for regenerative farming in New Zealand.
Regenerative agriculture potentially had an important role to play in New Zealand, although evidence was urgently required, lead author Dr Gwen Grelet, senior researcher at Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, said
"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 means it has huge potential for driving the transformation of Aotearoa's agri-food system to move our country closer to its goals.
The consultation found many areas of strong agreement between advocates and sceptics, Grelet said.
"It's time to stop bickering and focus on identifying any true benefits regenerative agriculture might have for New Zealand."
The white paper was the result of intensive collaboration and consultation with more than 200 people from June to November 2020.
Collaborators included 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 refrained 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 was currently in progress to identify linkages between te ao Māori cultural concepts and regenerative agriculture principles.
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Gwen Grelet and Sam Lang on The Country below:
"Our research examined people's understanding of regenerative agriculture through outcomes, principles, practices and mindset," research co-lead Sam Lang, farmer and manager of the Quorum Sense farmer extension project said.
"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 white paper identified 11 principles for regenerative farming within the farmgate in New Zealand, with strong alignment between the pastoral, arable and viticulture sectors.
The 11 principles
(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. (See Figure 5, below.)
The white paper acknowledged significant overlap between mainstream and regenerative agriculture. Farming was a continuum of practices with no hard and fast distinction between mainstream and regenerative agriculture systems and practices.
The white paper assessed the compatibility of mainstream and regenerative farming practices and management strategies. (See Table 5, below.)
Developing specific "regenerative practice" guidance for New Zealand's many different primary sectors and geophysical contexts was a huge challenge, but one that may be necessary, the white paper said.
The white paper also said 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, the paper found.
Regenerative agriculture practitioners appeared 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
The white paper found anecdotal evidence for the benefits of regenerative agriculture in New Zealand was growing.
Regenerative practitioners were recording their observations and sharing them via social media and on-the-ground, farmer-led events. There was high demand for scientific testing of these observations and reported benefits.
The white paper found 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 asked for research on how regenerative agriculture impacted:
(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. (See Figure 11, below.)
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.
Finally, professionals in the wider agri-food system further wanted: (14) Data to de-risk investment and transition to regenerative agriculture; (15) "Conventional-style" practice guides for regenerative agriculture, customised for different sectors and New Zealand contexts; (16) An understanding of the "regenerative agriculture continuum" and (17) Clarity around the need for a definition/certification for regenerative agriculture (or
the lack thereof).