Scientists press to put ‘regenerative farming’ to test

A call for proposals for projects that will investigate regenerative farming practices "can’t happen soon enough", New Zealand Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural Science president Jon Hickford says.

In a strongly worded statement, the NZIAHS said it was "concerned about the dearth of sound science underpinning the hype surrounding regenerative agriculture".

The organisation had published a series of articles from scientists from different disciplines in this month’s issue of its online AgScience magazine which showed regenerative agriculture was "more hype than reality", it said.

MPI said there was increasing interest from farmers and the wider community about regenerative agricultural practices.

However, there was no agreed definition of what regenerative agriculture was and this was an opportunity to define what it means for New Zealand.

Funding for successful proposals was available through the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures co-investment fund and it was aimed to have projects under way by mid-2021.

Proposals must demonstrate how applicants would develop a sound evidence base to test and confirm what worked in New Zealand soils, climates, and farming systems; what scientific methodology would be used; and how the findings would be communicated to farmers.

Prof Hickford, who has taught science and agriculture degree programmes at Lincoln University for more than 30 years, said the NZIAHS had, for some time, been "disquieted by the ballyhoo" in support of regenerative agriculture in the absence of scientific studies into the implications of applying those practices to farm practices in New Zealand.

"A sound evidence base is needed to test and confirm what works in New Zealand soils, climates, and farming systems," he said.

He questioned what regenerative agriculture was and what benefits it could bring to the country’s distinctive farming practices.

The AgScience articles recognised New Zealand’s pastoral production system — "the most efficient in the world" — was built on a long history of agricultural science which was constantly being refined.

"But the maelstrom surrounding regenerative agriculture has shaken the foundation of this production system and prompted agricultural scientists with an understanding of the New Zealand system to try to sort out the claims," he said.

"The world is awash with attractive ideas but we need to see the hard evidence that regenerative agriculture will capture carbon in soil, reverse the atmospheric accumulation of CO2, increase yields and provide resilience to climate instability — just some of the many positive attributes claimed.

"And even it does demonstrably do these things in overseas countries, will it do the same in New Zealand? Our production systems and climate are different in many critical respects," he said.

Earlier this year, two prominent plant science academics Dr Derrick Moot, a professor of plant science at Lincoln, and retired senior lecturer Dr Warwick Scott, called for the establishment of an expert panel of scientists to review claims made about regenerative agriculture.

In a letter to Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor, they said they were concerned about the "mythology" of regenerative agriculture "and its worrying increased profile in the New Zealand media and farming sectors".


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