Is New Zealand agriculture already regenerative?
The following is an opinion piece by Jules Matthews and continues to be among the best that we've read on regenerative agriculture in New Zealand.
It summarises simply what a regenerative system looks like, relevant to the New Zealand context, and does well to respond to the viewpoint of those who believe that “New Zealand agriculture is already regenerative”.
Take it away, Jules Matthews:
As regenerative agriculture is being taken up across the globe, the practices, principles, and profitability the approach offers are increasingly up for discussion.There are welcome well-informed projects to benchmark and measure regenerative outcomes across the country.
At the same time a persistent viewpoint that NZ agriculture is already regenerative is emerging.
In my experience this is misinformed, and defaulting to that viewpoint has us resting on our laurels rather than exploring opportunities to learn new ways that would enable farmers, rather than adjusting and evolving the current model.
Clearly, NZ farming is facing issues; water quality, nutrient and biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions, erosion to the tune of 192 million tonnes of top soil annually – and, farmer stress, both economic and personal, impacting wellbeing - to name a few.
This coupled with the pressure of looming prescriptive regulation adding cost to doing business, has many farmers wondering where to turn, and the validity of their future. Industry advice appears to be shifting its approach from using increasing inputs in the form of NPK to lowering inputs with the addition of N inhibitors, sustain N, SurePhos etc. What will the next round of unintended consequences be as today’s answer becomes tomorrow’s problem?
Does this approach of addressing the parts of a system unrelated to the whole have what it takes to resolve the issues we face?
Today’s statistics tell us that is unlikely. While industry, government departments and some science has supported and promoted the current best practice model we use in farming, it is farmers that are left to address the negative results from some of these practices.
A farming system which is truly regenerative captures these inefficiencies, holding water like a sponge, before slowly releasing clean water to streams and rivers. A regenerative system draws down greenhouse gases and optimises the freely available nitrogen in the atmosphere.
When we have this, New Zealand can truly proclaim is it regenerative. Until then, there is a gap between what we think we’re producing and reality.
Does a regenerative approach have something to offer? It’s often stated that there is no clear definition of “regenerative” agriculture. The same can be said that there is no one definition or formula to raising a child.
Regenerative farming is a principle based, whole system approach to managing and measuring the outcomes of our actions in the ecosystems we manage.
It is not prescriptive, it is context dependent and needs to be applied in local situations.
Based in the understanding of the interconnected relationships of all the parts of a living system, it is by nature adaptive and syntropic.
A regenerative approach requires farmers to develop their knowledge, understanding, and observational skills as they seek to close loops in their production systems. Becoming less dependent on inputs from off-farm as they improve the ecological function, profitability, and social outcomes they are committed to.
Optimising photosynthesis through more diverse pastures and adapting our already well-developed grazing systems to allow adequate recovery times for optimal plant, soil and animal health, and productivity is a key component. Addressing limiting factors - whether they be mineral, microbial, management, or the often overlook factor of mindset - are also fundamental to taking a whole system approach.
A regenerative system is not restricted to any particular model of farming, nor does it limit itself to any particular scientific silo, although it is based in, and is increasing being researched through various scientific lenses.
We need science to catch up with what is being discovered by a growing number of farmers, who have the evidence, both observational and through measurement of their improving systems. These outcomes include improvements in productivity, profitability, animal health, water infiltration and retention, biodiversity, resilience, product shelf life and quality, and personal wellbeing.
It is innovative, independent-thinking farmers who will continue to lead the way.
The Oxford dictionary defines science as; the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.
Regenerative farmers are doing this in the field, this takes courage and a willingness to learn newly.
I salute the growing number of farmers who, without extensive support of government and industry are providing the leadership in this arena.
Their commitment to resolving the many issues we face both on farm and societally through a regenerative approach and a wholistic mindset is gaining air time because of the results being produced.