Regenerative agriculture – white paper calls for more science but critics say snake oil needs no testing

Canterbury Forum 2019 image

Since the NZIAHS published its special issue of AgScience with a special focus on regenerative agriculture in December, the call for more research has been reinforced by the preparation of a “white paper” by a country-wide group of researchers.  They have identified key research topics for further study to improve understanding and practice of regenerative farming.

The 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, said the lead author, Dr Gwen Grelet, senior researcher at Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research.

“Regenerative agriculture has huge momentum internationally in all parts of the food system,” she said.  “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.”

In a newsletter to NZIAHS members today, the institute’s president, Professor Jon Hickford, notes that some concerns have been expressed to him about the white paper.   One issue is whether it fairly reflects the views which RA sceptics expressed during consultations in the preparation of the paper.  Another issue is who was paid how much to produce the paper.

When it comes to the paper’s conclusions, however, there should be no disagreement, Professor Hickford said.  The paper insists (as does the NZIAHS) there is a pressing need and demand to test the claims made by RA proponents using robust scientific methodology.

But there is a school of thought within the NZIAHS that RA is pseudo science and therefore is unworthy of R&D investments.

Suggesting otherwise opens the way for some in the CRIs and Universities to unashamedly use this as opportunity to pull in research dollars. The integrity of our science system then will be brought into question.

Suggesting otherwise, more critically, is to repudiate this country’s proud history of applying excellent science to optimise the production and minimise the environmental impacts of our agricultural and horticultural sectors.   Indeed, we are world-beaters in this area.

If the product being peddled palpably is snake oil, agreed, there should be no need for it to be tested. But if research can demonstrate the advantages to soil carbon of irrigating, adding fertiliser and re-sowing in high-performance pastures that allow us to more efficiently produce meat and wool, without a concordant increase in nutrient loss …

Well, isn’t that to be welcomed?

Like it  or not, funding for successful proposals has been made available through the Ministry for Primary Industries Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures co-investment fund, which aims to have projects under way by mid-2021.

On the Landcare Research website, AgScience has winkled out more thoughts on the subject.

These are recorded in an article headed Regenerative Agriculture in New Zealand: pathways to building the scientific evidence and progressing national narratives.

That’s the title of the aforementioned white paper.

The article says:

Regenerative agriculture (RA) is proposed as a solution to reverse climate change, biodiversity loss, declining water quality and health of freshwater ecosystems, well-being crises in rural and farming communities, and food system disfunctions. In New Zealand, RA may also open and increase access to overseas premium and niche markets.

RA is a global grassroots farmer-driven movement founded on an ecological paradigm that seeks to address some of the failings of our current global food system. The RA movement acknowledges that farmers can take responsibility and become part of the solution to mitigating the negative environmental impacts of food production. But RA is much more than a system of farming – it is a mindset that sees possibilities and opportunities for different ways of living, working, and farming. RA aligns with growing worldwide societal and consumer demands for safer, healthier, environmentally sound food systems and engages in innovative processing and market pathways.

However, there are divergent views in New Zealand society, with at the extreme ends: some calling for transformation (beyond incremental change), while others point out that many of the real or perceived negative environmental impacts of farming are the consequences of practices not widely employed in New Zealand. Furthermore, while there is a plethora of scientific studies on the impact of individual RA practices, there are few reporting on outcomes from RA systems, and these were for the most part undertaken overseas. Hence there is a lack of clarity about what RA actually is, skepticism about its claimed benefits, and uncertainty as to whether the concept is even relevant to New Zealand.

A collaborative and consultative research project was undertaken from June to December 2020, involving more than 70 New Zealand-based organisations and 200 people, including producers, researchers, private consultants and educators, industry levy bodies, banks, retailers, not-for-profit organisations, and overseas researchers. The project has included representation from a wide range of practitioners in science, scientific institutions, and farming systems of New Zealand – in the hope that the resulting recommendation for the building of scientific evidence will have legitimacy and relevance across all parties concerned with RA.

The project was anchored primarily in a western science worldview because discussions with Māori practitioners and researchers highlighted that tāngata whenua and their diversity of enterprises cannot meaningfully engage in a conversation about RA and its linkage to Te Ao Māori until the time, space, and resource for collective thinking have taken place. This collective thinking needs to be undertaken in the first instance by Māori experts and practitioners and has made a start elsewhere.

The project was funded by the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, the NEXT foundation, and Manaaki Whenua with in-kind support from multiple research institutions, and governmental and private entities. The project aimed to: (1) better understand what RA means for New Zealand within-farm, and (2) develop a scientific framework based on current evidence for guiding RA research in New Zealand. A white paper and supporting report, presenting the highlights of findings from this project, will be publicly released in the first quarter of 2021.

Sources:  NZIAHS, Landcare Research



Author: Bob Edlin

Editor of AgScience Magazine and Editor of the AgScience Blog