Regenerative farming not to be maligned

Our soil is the most  complex  ecosystem on  the planet. Photo: Si Williams
Our soil is the most complex ecosystem on the planet. Photo: Si Williams
There has been an ongoing campaign by some New Zealand scientists to discredit regenerative and organic farming systems and this needs to be challenged, writes Allan Richardson.

Comments attacking regenerative agriculture and organic farming could be termed, at the least, very biased.

The focus of science has changed so that the commercialisation of science is driving research to prove the benefits of a company’s product for commercial gain, rather than solving industry-good challenges.

Surely there are conflicts of interests when scientists are called in to promote a company product or question the value of another.

Why is scientific policy treated differently to corporate boards or even school boards of trustees where a person must step aside from a discussion where they have a conflict of interest?

Allegations of cherry-picking reports is also a bit rich when we hear there is no research that proves organic or regenerative agriculture (RA) is any better than conventional farming.

Farmers can simply search Rodale Institute in the United States, a 40-year trial comparing organic versus conventional cropping farming.

It found organic gives comparable yields after a conversion period, 45% less energy use and 40% fewer carbon emissions and more profit.

One only has to look back in history to see science is not black and white and that personal agendas and funding may also cloud the narrative.

Ancel Keys was an American scientist who developed the diet heart hypothesis that a high saturated fat diet caused heart disease, back in the early 1960s.

He analysed data from 22 countries but only used the data from eight countries that proved his hypothesis. He then ran a four and-a-half-year trial in a mental hospital to prove the hypothesis.

When the results showed the high saturated fat group had 27% less heart attacks, he buried the results.

This science was adopted worldwide and contributed to poor health outcomes of millions of people until it was finally retracted in 2013.

The attacks on RA and organic conveniently leave out the major component of our soils, the biological aspects.

Our soil is the most complex ecosystem on the planet; there are billions of living organisms and millions of species in just one teaspoon of soil.

We have only just begun to understand some of the complex relationships that exist in the soil and there is a touch of arrogance from some scientists who make sweeping statements without understanding or acknowledging the major biological properties of the soil biome.

The narrative is always about the chemical inputs, never the biological relationships. When we buy biological products such as seaweed-based ones its not for the percentage of each chemical element they have but how they stimulate and feed the biology in the soil, that matters.

The case for organics, I appreciate, is a red flag for many farmers. It tends to be judged by the worst farmer in the district compared to the best examples of conventional farming.

Organics may never be the largest farm system in New Zealand, but the industry continues to grow.

The value of organic goods and services in New Zealand was $720 million in 2020 it has been growing at 20% over the last three years. Globally the organic food market was $221 billion in 2021 and growing at 9.7%pa. We have multinational corporates such as Patagonia and Danone wanting their farmers to move to regenerative farming. There is a massive worldwide demand for RA and organic food which New Zealand is ideally placed to supply.

But I hear the chorus that the world will starve if we all go organic. The facts are we already produce enough food for 10 billion people, but we waste between 30%-40%. We also have a worldwide population that is 13% obese and another 39% overweight so some of us are on double or triple maintenance feed levels.

The recent Sri Lanka government decision to force farmers to go organic was always going to be a disaster. You can’t go cold turkey on soils highly dependent on synthetic fertilisers but with a managed transition over three to five years, production can be maintained as many RA farmers in New Zealand have proved.

RA has been quite divisive and looked on as a threat to our current farming systems.

Farmers need to look at RA as an opportunity to manage their soils, plants and animals as an integrated ecosystem. It doesn’t have restrictive standards like organics, and it focuses on outcomes. The outcomes include improved soil and plant biodiversity, less reliance on synthetic fertilisers including nitrogen, lower input costs and fewer environment issues to contend with.

You can jump on the RA bus at any level and try aspects on your own farm without having to make major changes. We are all scientists at a farm level when we change inputs and measure the changes in the vat or on the bottom line.

This country will take time to develop a Kiwi RA system unique to our own microclimates, but the seeds have been sown! I believe the future farming innovation will come from the regenerative sector.

We need to honour Gwen Grelet, a senior researcher at Landcare Research who co-authored the first study on RA in New Zealand

Comments from the science community denouncing her work and the lack of science because she went against the narrative were nothing more than bully-boy tactics.

An organic regenerative brand could be the gold standard for farming in New Zealand and a logical progression for farmers who have reached good performance levels and low input costs with RA. It would allow new opportunities into high value markets at a premium above other production systems.

- Allan Richardson is an organic and regenerative farmer in West Otago and a board member of Organics Aotearoa New Zealand





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