Regenerative agriculture: let’s put these claims to the test

Lincoln University’s Professor Derrick Moot and retired plant scientist Dr Warwick Scott have done an admirable job by drawing Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor’s attention to the pros and cons of “regenerative agriculture”.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, a soil scientist, has written on the topic too. In an article for the New Zealand Herald’s “The Country section”, which challenged the notion that moving to regenerative agriculture with an organic focus will create a primary sector with more ability to help with Covid-19 recovery. Her conclusion: this is wonderful in theory, but doesn’t work in practice.
NZIAHS members should be lending their support – but the bigger issue which should perturb us is the attack on science itself in this era when easy access to the internet can spread fake news, deceptions, falsehoods, fabrications and canards faster and over a much vaster patch of the globe than a top-dresser can spread superphosphate.
Moot and Scott wrote to Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor with a highly worthwhile proposal. They urged him to convene an expert panel of scientists to review all the claims made about regenerative agriculture.
“It is important that sound science drives our agricultural systems,” they advised. “We believe such a panel should provide a robust critique of the claims made about ‘regenerative agriculture’ to ensure the public, industry and policy makers have a balanced and scientifically informed view of the ideas promulgated.”
One of their concerns is that regenerative agriculture has won a great deal of favourable publicity but has been given scant critical scientific evaluation. The danger is that the world-leading agricultural practices used by our sheep and beef farmers and the scientific principles on which they are based are undermined by ill-informed public sentiment. “We are particularly concerned that the erroneous publicity about ‘regenerative agriculture’ will divert the limited New Zealand agricultural science resources from more important, substantive issues,” they said.
Definitions are another issue. The lack of a clear and accepted definition of “regenerative agriculture” by default implies that New Zealand’s conventional agricultural practices are degenerative.

Moot and Scott reject this. Yes, our sheep and beef farming practices can and will be improved, but their shortcomings are minor compared with most international production systems and New Zealand’s sheep and beef sector is the only industry to have reduced its greenhouse gas emissions intensity to below 1990s’ levels while continuing to make strong productivity gains.

Derrick Moot
Dr Warwick Scott

Then there’s the matter of regenerative agriculture’s acceptance by the Primary Sector Council (an influential instrument of policy-shaping promoted by Mr O’Connor) and by Beef + Lamb New Zealand. These influential groups seem to have accepted that overseas ideas and practices are relevant to New Zealand and/or would improve our production systems, but without any robust analysis of whether this is true.
So let’s put the claims to the test. A government which has been splashing billions of dollars on an array of programmes and projects in the name of rejuvenating the pandemic-smitten economy should devote some of the money to enabling scientists and researchers to work with farmers to build a robust, evidence-based understanding of the benefits of regenerative agriculture practices in a New Zealand context.

Greenpeace challenged

Dr Rowarth was galvanised to write her article by Greenpeace’s vision of a cleaner, higher-value and more resilient primary sector which (the lobbying group insists) could be achieved by switching to regenerative agriculture with a “plant-based” and “organic” focus. Could it?
The call for a comprehensive change in land use – likely to seriously stress the backbone of our economy – was set out in a document supporting Greenpeace’s request to the government to invest a billion dollars in helping farmers adopt new practices. Greenpeace wants diversification into more plant-based foods and fibres grown by using regenerative methods and a reduction of ruminant livestock numbers. It warns 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”.
But this naively assumes our hill and high country is amenable to anything other than pasture production and thus ruminant livestock farming, hence a rapid increase in new and high value plant-based food production systems on these lands seems unlikely. It overlooks nutritional considerations, too. The World Health Organisation recognises iron deficiency as the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world. It is also the only nutrient deficiency which affects people in both developing and developed countries, with an estimated 30% or 2 billion of the world’s population suffering from anaemia, many due to iron deficiency, with infectious diseases exacerbating the condition in developing countries. Mandating a further reduction in the consumption of red meat in New Zealand, when it has already declined by 42% in the last 10 years, would seem rather irresponsible.
The Greenpeace claim is sourced to a study published in Nature Food which concluded the livestock sector emits one third of all human-induced nitrogen pollution. Dr Rowarth countered that:

  • 66% of the one-third originates in Asia; and
  • Greenpeace did not mention New Zealand, which is shown to be an extraordinarily efficient producer of animal protein.
  • The conservative value of export earnings from meat and dairy in New Zealand is about $23 billion a year and embedded N emissions are 4% of the global load, whereas Australian exports (for comparative purposes) are about NZ$18 billion generating 21% of the N emissions traded.

Dr Rowarth’s warning is that granting the wish to switch to so-called regenerative agriculture would jeopardise New Zealand’s livestock production efficiency, and this when she herself is vegetarian!
Her critique highlights one of my concerns: regenerative agriculture is being championed by people who cherry-pick their information to suit their agenda and play to their audience’s emotions. They will ignore science that contradicts their ‘religion’. Moreover, they seem to think that all scientists are beholden to the deep pockets of big business, a bizarre belief that is contradicted by the large numbers of scientists who work for state institutions such as universities, government departments and crown research institutes.

Welcome back to science

Dr Sue Bidrose

I was heartened to spot a headline that read “National Portrait: Sue Bidrose, doing good science for farmers”. The article focused on AgResearch’s new chief executive, Sue Bidrose, after she had swapped Dunedin’s grey Octagon for the green fields of Lincoln. Her previous job was as chief executive of the Dunedin City Council,

Sue grew up in Wainuiomata in Lower Hutt and had an aptitude for science. Her first job out of school was as a lab technician with the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries at Wallaceville, in Upper Hutt, long before AgResearch was one of the crown research institutes set up in 1992. She subsequently went to the University of Otago and gained a doctorate in psychology before moving into management. She now oversees more than 700 staff across AgResearch campuses in Lincoln, Dunedin, Hamilton and Palmerston North.
She told the Stuff interviewer she enjoyed working with other people to help them to do good work. “The opportunity to do that again in a science-based institution was a very appealing one.” She further said she gives “a damn about good science”.
Noting that the casualties of COVID-19 include the sudden slump in tourism, Sue said this makes agriculture and primary industries the country’s top export earner again. “Our job is to contribute to that by finding ways for farmers to do it better and cheaper with less impact on the waterways, and less contribution to climate change.”
The Otago Daily Times editorialised that “the Bidrose era can be judged a success”, because she left Dunedin in better shape than when she started. I wish her well in doing the same thing for AgResearch.

CRIs and public opinion

When the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment released the review of the New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes it had commissioned, the Science Media Centre sought comment on the findings and recommendations from Professor Shaun Hendy, Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, University of Auckland. He identified an important issue that had not been explored – the poor reputation that CRIs enjoy with the media.“Scientific commentary from CRIs is often filtered through corporate-style public relations or not made available at all,” he said. “This has some very real implications for the public interest, with issues such as water quality, fisheries, and climate change often not benefiting from frank public commentary by CRI scientists. This reduces the quality of public discourse in New Zealand on key issues and undermines trust in science. It is disappointing that the panel did not explore this issue.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Professor Hendy (along with Dr Siouxsie Wiles, Dr Michelle Dickinson, Professor Michael Baker, Professor David Skegg and Professor Rod Jackson) has done a fabulous job in adding technical detail to discussions about the management of COVID-19. They (and others) have collectively demonstrated what an immense asset our universities are to the New Zealand public when matters of public health come to the fore.
But let’s suppose (perish the thought) New Zealand got Foot and Mouth disease. This wouldn’t threaten people’s health but it would have the potential to do immense economic damage. Would our CRI scientists be able to inform and calm people as public health scientists have done with COVID-19, or would their voices by stifled?
I agree with Professor Hendy that we need to ensure our largely taxpayer-funded CRI scientists are able to inform public and political understanding in matters in which they have expertise and as and when they see fit.

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