The “mythology” of regenerative agriculture and lack of scientific evidence has prompted two renowned plant scientists to write to Ag Minister Damien O’Connor.
OPINION: A new thought for the New Year – New Zealand ‘generative agriculture’… or New-gen, for short.
New-gen captures New Zealand’s approach to the soil-plant-animal-environment continuum that makes up agriculture: animals have been moved in herds or flocks around the farm or station, enabling them to graze the pasture at its optimum quantity and quality and return dung and urine to the soil in situ. Earthworms have been introduced to enhance organic matter incorporation into the soil and water has been applied in some areas to overcome drought. The result is that organic matter has been maintained or increased.
Efficiencies developed over the past 100 years have been based on science, informed by research, and honed by farmers.
New-gen picks up on the interest in regenerative agriculture, but repositions New Zealand as the leader in achievement – the point being that you can’t RE-generate something unless it is DE-generated. New Zealand does not have deserts, desertification or dust bowls. That’s in contrast to some parts of Africa, America and Australia from where the proponents of regenerative agriculture come.
New Zealand does have drought-sensitive areas, which could degenerate if not looked after appropriately. The Landcare Research website suggests that there are 50,000 km2 of dryland ecosystems in New Zealand, derived from fire-sensitive shrubland and dry forest ecosystems – mostly on the East Coast of both islands.
Of note is that they are less than 800 years old, indicating that humans have been involved in their creation. Just as they were in the more recent development of the American dustbowl (and in some of the examples of desertification in Africa and Asia). Environmental concerns have been raised about agriculture on dryland areas, but these concerns overlook the fact that the landscape was altered several hundred years ago by the first human arrivals.
Regenerative agriculture on degraded soils overseas has used a combination of animal management, fertiliser and irrigation to rebuild organic matter. What has been achieved, however, is still below what most of New Zealand already has, even in the dryland areas.
Some research overseas is already pointing to a limitation in regenerative agriculture in that after a few years, organic matter stops increasing. Work in New Zealand has shown why – a dynamic equilibrium between inputs and outputs is reached. To alter the equilibrium requires another change – increasing inputs or decreasing outputs.
Decreasing outputs means less food, which is not what the world desires.
The question now should be what to do for the future.
The Food Climate Research Network, based at the University of Oxford, has stated that increased production must be met through higher yields. The alternative is increasing the area of land in agriculture but doing so has major environmental costs in biodiversity – as well as soil carbon loss. The network has also explained that Sustainable Intensification denotes a goal but does not specify a priori (that is, based on theory rather than observation or experience) how it should be attained, or which agricultural techniques should be used.
“The merits of diverse approaches in different locations and context should be evaluated carefully, taking biophysical and social contexts into account.”
In short, there is no one-size-fits all for Sustainable Intensification. Knowing the starting point, as well as the possible input and output factors, are vital, so is knowing the global trends in temperature, water availability, energy and consumer thinking.
New Zealand has scientists focussing on all the important aspects. And New Zealand has farmers who deserve to be acknowledged for their contribution to the environment and economy.
New-gen is for farmers wanting to continue doing the right thing by the environment while supporting food supply. New Zealand researchers can show the way, using New Zealand farmers as the example.
New-gen – it’s what we do.
• Dr Jacqueline Rowarth is a soil scientist with a PhD in nutrient cycling. Her research has focused on phosphorus, nitrogen and carbon.