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Incentives for Change

Regenerative Agriculture

Developing a framework to collect scientific evidence about regenerative agriculture in Aotearoa

Heifers Grazing Soil Primer Mix To Help Kickstart Soil Health

What Are We Doing?

There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence for the benefits of regenerative agriculture, but scientific studies are scarce and focused on other countries.

We don’t yet have enough New Zealand data to compare the multiple suggested benefits of regenerative farming (environmental, economic, social, psychological and cultural) to other current ways of farming in New Zealand.

This think piece project will develop a framework for future regenerative agriculture research in New Zealand. It will identify what’s needed to build a scientific evidence base, so that future research can quickly fill the evidence gaps specific to regenerative agriculture in New Zealand.

Regenerative agriculture practices are adaptive and seek to optimise farm performance for multiple benefits simultaneously. This isn't easy to measure using conventional academic approaches, so this project will look at how to combine academic knowledge with the ways farmers and land managers know and appraise their whole system.

The project will identify what farmers, investors and agribusinesses need to measure, so they can communicate how their farming approach benefits their customers, communities and regulators.

How Can The Research Be Used?

  • The Regenerative Agriculture think piece outlined the top principles and goals of regenerative farming systems in New Zealand, in general and by sector (dairy, drystock, arable and viticulture).
  • This project didn’t look at specific regenerative agriculture practices. It focussed on how scientists and land managers can measure the outcomes of regenerative farming activities, including profitability, productivity, food quality and safety, animal welfare, social wellbeing, land and water quality, and climate change adaptation and mitigation, and identify knowledge and/or methodological gaps.
  • Alignment between te ao Māori (including recent iwi-led initiatives) and regenerative farming principles will be identified by Māori experts and is not part of this project.
  • This project will result in a research framework to help quantify and qualify outcomes from regenerative farming activities. This framework will be used by MPI to inform future investment decisions for regenerative agriculture research.

Research Updates

Regenerative Agriculture: Measuring What Works, Where It Matters

Nov 23 2021

‘Regen' Research Will Benefit Some Regions More Than Others – Report

Research on regenerative agriculture in New Zealand might benefit some regions more than others, says ...
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Regenerative Agriculture: Productivity, Profit and Food Quality

Nov 15 2021

Wider Adoption of Regen Ag Could Change How We Assess the Economics of Farming

The usual ways to measure the economics of farming need to be expanded to fully ...
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Regenerative Agriculture: Biodiversity and Animal Welfare

Nov 5 2021

Regenerative Farming is Likely to Increase Native Biodiversity

Regenerative farming practices could increase native biodiversity on New Zealand farms, finds a report released ...
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Regenerative Agriculture: Soil and Climate Change

Oct 29 2021

Regenerative Agriculture, Soil Health and Climate Change

People are increasingly aware of the current food system’s role in the planet’s climate change ...
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Overview of Regenerative Agriculture in Aotearoa

Oct 22 2021

Overview of Regenerative Agriculture in Aotearoa

Five reports released today provide timely insights into regenerative agriculture in Aotearoa New Zealand in ...
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Regen Ag In Aotearoa

Oct 13 2021

Regenerative Agriculture in Aotearoa

What is regenerative agriculture? How do we find out if it works? Increasing numbers of ...
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Figure depicting regen ag principles as part of an integrated circular farming system. Within the farm: biological activity, total biodiversity, soil carbon/nitrogen/phosphorus, practices, mindset, adaptive management, profit, kaitiakitanga, data, story-telling. Outside the circle, influencing in: climate, catchment, community, marketing, costs.

Feb 22 2021

Regenerative Agriculture White Paper Sets Out Pressing Research Priorities

Regenerative agriculture has been proposed as a solution for some of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most ...
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Scientists, researchers, farmers and students involved in the participatory research and extension programme (PEP) discuss the results of plantain research at the Ashley Dene Research Station.

Sep 23 2020

Are You a Business, Lifestyle, Family or Learning Farmer?

Farming is changing, responding to increasing pressure to adopt new practices that prioritise environmental outcomes. ...
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Regenerative Agriculture: Webinar and Q&A

Jul 28 2020

Regenerative Agriculture: Webinar and Q&A

Dr Gwen Grelet and Sam Lang co-lead the new Our Land and Water regenerative agriculture ...
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Dr Nina Koele measuring water infiltration rate (photo credit: Jason Nolan)

May 27 2020

What Do We Know About Regenerative Agriculture in New Zealand?

In 2020, news headlines have been dominated by global crises – the Australian wildfires, the ...
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Community Involvement

  • The Regenerative Agriculture think piece project formed working groups that included a diverse range of farmers, people from agribusiness and government, and scientists, including people who are interested in and sceptical about regenerative agriculture.
  • Altogether, the project engaged over 100 people and their networks to identify the questions they would like answered about regenerative agriculture in New Zealand, or to seek their input into the framework.

Team Snapshot

Research Outputs

TOPIC REPORTS – overview

‘Think piece’ on regenerative agriculture in Aotearoa New Zealand: project overview and statement of purpose

Gwen Grelet & Sam Lang
Contract Report LC3954-0, 2021

This report is the first of a series of topic reports written as part of a ‘think piece’ project on Regenerative Agriculture (RA) in Aotearoa New Zealand. This think piece aims to provide a framework that can be used to develop a scientific evidence base and research questions specific to RA, with relevance to a wide range of end users, including academic researchers and farmers. It was initiated in response to New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries seeking to assess the potential benefits (or drawbacks) of RA. It is the result of a large collaborative effort across the New Zealand agrifood system over the course of 6 months in 2020 that included representatives of the research community, farming industry bodies, farmers and RA practitioners, consultants, governmental organisations, and the social/environmental entrepreneurial sector.

An introduction and guide to the ‘alternative agricultures’: an enquiry into values

Charles Merfield
Contract Report LC3954-2, September 2021

The report’s aim is to give an introduction and be a guide to the alternative agricultures (alt-ags) for people who have some general knowledge of agriculture but are somewhat bewildered by the many different alt-ags, what they are about, why there are so many, and the problems with mainstream agriculture they are trying to address. It does this to provide context in all forms, e.g., historical, philosophical, practical, for the emergence of Regenerative Agriculture, which to a considerable extent stands on the shoulders of the other alt-ags. The report is definitely not a critical or deep analysis, nor a systemic review. It also does not aim to pass judgment or define the farming systems. As such it only aims to be an informed reflection on the topic, backed up, when relevant, with references to academic and grey literature, with the aim of providing a simple overview of the alt-ags.

A perspective on Te Ao Māori and regenerative agriculture – Tangata ahu whenua: nurturing our landscapes

Selai Letica
Contract Report: LC3954-4, May 2021

The diversity of farming practiced by mana whenua and Māori entities across scales is contributing to a rekindling and growing knowledge base about what tikanga-led practice can ‘look like’ in different places, scales, and contexts. The systems and practices that evolve from this process will be unique to Māori entities. To be ready to engage meaningfully with emerging systems such as RA, Māori entities and tangata whenua will require the resources and time to consolidate a diverse and often invisible landscape of activities to establish a collective understanding of tikanga-led practice. As such, te ao Māori enterprises that are led by whakapapa and customary knowledges represent an opportunity to fundamentally rethink existing norms attached to food and fibre systems in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Regenerative principles applied in New Zealand

Sam Lang, Mark Anderson, Hamish Bielski, David Birkett, Jono Frew, Lance Gillespie, Nick Gill, Rory Grant, Nigel Greenwood, Angus Hogg, Richard Holdaway, Robbie Holdaway, Mondo Kopua, Jules Matthews, Dean Martin, Mike Porter, Melissa Robson-Williams, Skye Rutherford, Rachel Short, Roger Small, Miah Smith, Simon White
Contract Report: LC3954-2, September 2021

This report summarises and describes 11 principles drawn from multiple focus groups with NZ farmers and growers. Some principles are focused on encouraging farm practices that directly improve biological/ecological function. Others relate more to the perspectives and decision-making processes that participants identified as important for supporting farm practice implementation.

Perspectives on ‘regenerative outcomes’ and associated research needs: insights from consultation with participants in four sectors – arable, dairy, sheep & beef, and viticulture

Gwen Grelet, Melissa Robson-Williams, Robbie Price, Nick Kirk, Abie Horrocks, Trish Fraser, Michelle Barry, Rachel Mellor, Matt Buckler, Will Kerner, Sarah O’Connell, Frank Griffin
Contract Report LC3954-5, 2021

This research conducted a series of sector-specific online working groups, complemented by survey questionnaires. Through these mixed quantitative and qualitative data collection processes, researchers elicited from participants: their views on what makes a farming system ‘regenerative’ (i.e. what outcomes does it achieve?), the relative importance of these different outcomes, indicators that can be used to measure progress towards these outcomes, what is currently working well and not well in New Zealand (NZ), and a comparison with international experiences, where to focus future research. This report presents these data.

TOPIC REPORTS: SOIL AND CLIMATE CHANGE

Soil health research in the context of regenerative agriculture

Nicole Schon, Trish Fraser, Nicole Masters, Bryan Stevenson, Jo Cavanagh, Garth Harmsworth & Gwen-Aëlle Grelet
Contract Report: LC3954-13, May 2021

We propose a core list of soil health indicators applicable to New Zealand (NZ) soils under various uses and management regimes, including Regenerative Agriculture (RA). The set includes measures suitable for on-farm monitoring, as well as for research purposes, and also includes indicators commonly used by RA practitioners. The indicators listed go beyond standard soil fertility tests commonly used on-farm, and include organic matter properties, soil physical condition, and biological properties. Although there are many studies on soil health, there is a paucity of studies evaluating the effect of RA on soil health at the paddock scale and at a farm-system level. We examine the rationale underpinning the proposed impacts of RA and highlight key knowledge gaps.

Summary: Soil Health

One-page summary

Determining the greenhouse gas reduction potential of regenerative agricultural practices

Johannes Laubach, Paul Mudge, Sam McNally, Pierre Roudier, and Gwen-Aëlle Grelet
Contract Report: LC3954-12, May 2021

Regenerative Agriculture (RA) can potentially contribute to mitigating climate change via a reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture and increases of soil carbon stocks. The global potential for such reductions is considerable, but the feasibility of such reductions is disputed among scientists. This report aims to give an overview of the processes known, or suspected, to achieve GHG reductions, and to describe how such contributions can be verified and quantified. The report will begin with an overview of the main facts about agricultural GHG emissions and soil carbon storage. This is followed by a section explaining the different claims for how RA can mitigate GHG emissions and the knowledge context on which each claim is based. Four main sections then discuss the practical challenges to investigating these claims and the available methods to overcome the challenges. The final section summarises the knowledge gaps and recommends priorities for future research.

Quantifying resilience to drought and flooding in agricultural systems

Mitchell Donovan, Kate Orwin, Pierre Roudier, Stella Belliss
Contract Report: LC3954-14, May 2021

RA practices have been suggested as a way to increase resilience to flood and drought conditions. These are expected to increase in frequency and intensity over the coming decades. To test this hypothesis, we suggest a framework for quantifying farm systems’ resilience to flood and drought conditions using indirect and direct measurements of resilience at plot, field, farm, and landscape-scales. This framework consists of: measurements of soil properties known to indirectly support resistance to, or recovery from, drought and flood; direct measurements of productivity and quality throughout periods of disturbance; remote sensing measurements of vegetation quality. In capturing all three approaches, we can identify whether RA practices alter resilience to drought and flood compared to current management practices at field, farm, and landscape scales; and identify which mechanisms are supporting such resilience.

Ecosystem-based solutions for climate change adaptation in rural landscapes of New Zealand

Sandra Lavorel, Gwen-Aëlle Grelet
Contract Report: LC3954-18, September 2021

As one of its contributions to people’s quality of life, nature can support the adaptation of agro-ecosystems and farming communities to climate change. Adaptation occurs through actions and decisions made in order to limit the occurrence, and reduce, buffer, and repair the impacts, of multiple climate change direct drivers (e.g. increased temperatures means and extremes, changed precipitation regimes) and indirect drivers (e.g. more frequent fires or floods, exotic species invasions) on farm systems. This report exemplifies how the focus on nature’s contributions to adaptation can be synergistic with the objectives of Regenerative Agriculture (RA) in New Zealand.

TOPIC REPORTS: Biodiversity and Animal Welfare

Native biodiversity and regenerative agriculture in New Zealand

Professor David A. Norton
Contract Report: LC3954-17, September 2021

This paper addresses two related questions: How can native biodiversity be included within a Regenerative Agriculture (RA) farming system in New Zealand? Can native biodiversity be used as an indicator of successful regenerative farming practices in New Zealand? To start with, I define what I see the concept of RA encompassing. I then discuss New Zealand’s native biodiversity, and especially how it differs from parts of the world that are often used as models for applying RA in New Zealand. I then look at biodiversity conservation in pastoral farming landscapes and outline some principles for implementing biodiversity conservation on New Zealand farms, including regenerative farms. I finish by discussing how we can use native biodiversity as an indicator of successful regenerative farming practices.

Summary: Understanding biodiversity in the context of regenerative agriculture

Melanie Davidson, Maria Minor, Jacqui Todd, David Norton, Francisco D’Elia
One-page summary

Terrestrial macrofauna invertebrates as indicators of agricultural impacts

Melanie Davidson, Maria Minor, Jacqui Todd
Contract Report: LC3954-16, May 2021

The focus of this report is on macrofauna, which are sensitive to disturbances and useful as potential indicators to evaluate the impacts of management practices. Other characteristics that make invertebrate macrofauna desirable indicators include: the ease of collecting a substantial number and variety of taxa from a given habitat, fluctuations in the abundance of many species in response to changes in environmental conditions, and their ability to move in response to changing conditions. For example, studies have shown that invertebrate communities are more diverse and abundant in crops free of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, and in crops adjacent to hedgerows with greater plant diversity. Consequently, a great deal of research has gone into devising systems or indices that use invertebrate diversity and abundance to measure the state of an ecosystem, or the impacts of disturbance on an ecosystem

Assessing animal welfare in New Zealand pastoral farms

Pablo Gregorini, Frank Griffin, Rob Gregory, and Matt Buckley
Contract Report: LC3954-11, September 2021

Regenerative agriculture represents a holistic approach to farming which encompasses animal welfare as a core pillar. As a result, it is appropriate to set aside the ‘Five Freedoms’ model and embrace the more modern and widely accepted ‘Five Domains’ model for considering animal welfare. The Five Domains are: good nutrition, good environment, good health, appropriate behaviour, opportunities for positive mental experiences, i.e. promoting ‘healthy’ emotional states.

TOPIC REPORTS: Productivity, Profit and Food Quality

Determining the economic and market potential of regenerative agriculture

Gwen-Aëlle Grelet,, Chris Perley, Tim Driver, Hugh Good, Chris Garland, John Saunders, Peter Tait, Barrie Ridler and Caroline Saunders
Contract Report: LC3954-8, November 2021

This report is a perspective paper. It seeks to provide an overview of issues / topics relevant to determining the economic and market potential of regenerative agriculture (RA), and to more widely appraising the economic benefits or costs of adopting RA. In doing so, the report also highlights key knowledge gaps and proposes methodologies to fill these gaps. The first part of this report focuses on metrics and methodological approaches that could be used for answering these questions. The second part of this report highlights modelling approaches that could be used to investigate the future economic impact of RA adoption on farming businesses, entire ag sectors and on the entire country. Other questions often asked are whether RA produce is marketable, discussed in the third part of this report. The fourth and final part of this report looks at possible options for assessing the economic benefits and / or costs of the environmental impacts of RA.

Productivity: Indicators and associated methodologies to quantify production

Nicole Schon, Mitchell Donovan,, Warren King, Pablo Gregorini, Robyn Dynes and Diana Selbie
Contract Report: LC3954-9, November 2021

This report examines how to assess the productivity of different systems in multiple sectors using measures of quality and quantity of farm product. The focus is on-farm productivity, we do not address how to assess productivity beyond the farm gate (e.g. at the processor and retailer end of the food and fibre distribution and supply chains). This chapter focuses on the measurement of productivity per unit area, or per livestock equivalent, over a particular time period, as is standard practice across the primary sectors. We highlight some of the challenges with using these assessments across different farm systems. Further, we acknowledge the importance of alternative ways to view farm productivity, although these are out of the scope of this report.

Nutrient density and food quality in the context of regenerative agriculture

Carolyn Lister
November 2021

Critical work is needed to assess the impacts of RA on food quality and safety in a New Zealand context. One of the premises of RA is that it can produce each individual food item at a higher quality, in particular, more nutrient dense. This needs to be substantiated through robust testing. The testing required will differ by crop and it will also be essential to consider what tool might be used to assess nutrient density (i.e. which profiling scoring system to use as to what domains should be captured). It will be important to test whether the nutrient/phytochemical concentrations in different individual farm produce is higher when produced under RA. Once that is determined and shown to differ, then nutrient profiling scores (such as Food Compass) could be used to compare an identical basket of foods (with quantities in proportion to their average consumption in a balanced diet). produced from RA or from ‘conventional’ agriculture. Other aspects of production can then be layered on to this to evaluate the wider aspects of quality and ensure economically sustainable production.

TOPIC REPORTS: Measuring What Works, Where It Matters

Place-based approaches to assessing the impact of regenerative agriculture in New Zealand

Fiona Curran-Cournane, Mitchell Donovan, Charles Merfield, Mike Taitoko
Contract Report LC3954-6, November 2021

In this report, a series of regional specific issues and opportunities are considered and proposed as localised case-studies for testing whether RA could deliver sought-after benefits to New Zealand in specific contexts. Each case-study was compiled by a different author and peer-reviewed separately. The four place-based case studies are: 1) An investigation of surface erosion caused by winter forage-crop grazing in Otago and Southland and if/how novel RA practices could mitigate current environmental issues linked to winter stock management; 2) Predicted increases in the frequency and severity of drought / flood in Hawke’s Bay, to investigate the capacity of RA to facilitate climate change adaptation; 3) Outdoor vegetable production in South Auckland, to investigate the capacity of RA to produce plant-based food with no or minimal environmental impact; 4) Kaitiakitanga and RA in the Ruahuwai takiwā, to investigate the capacity of RA to mitigate impacts of land use on water quality through a Te Ao Māori lens.

New Zealand’s monitoring frameworks for agricultural sustainability and assurance

Charles Merfield
Contract Report: LC3954-7, August 2021

The overall aim of this report is to provide the reader with a general understanding of agricultural sustainability frameworks, using examples from Aotearoa New Zealand. This is in the context of the current interest in Regenerative Agriculture (RA) in NZ and discussions within RA about the need, or lack of need, to develop systems to prove the provenance of regenerative farm products and a framework to describe what regenerative practices involve. The report makes no attempt to be a detailed and comprehensive analysis of the different systems, as this would require orders of magnitude greater resources than were available and also access to non-public information. This report undertakes a high-level review and analysis of a range of NZ and overseas sustainability assurance frameworks to determine which sustainability areas they cover, and how. To achieve this, they have been compared against two global schemes for appraising sustainability assessment frameworks: Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture (SAFA); and ISEAL Alliance.

Research strategies relevant to regenerative agriculture

Gwen-Aëlle Grelet, Charles Merfield, Melissa Robson-Williams, Ina Pinxterhuis
Contract Report: LC3954-4, November 2021

More than 60 individual knowledge gaps were identified, across 11 aspects of RA: productivity, food nutrient density & quality, animal welfare, freshwater health, soil health, economics, biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, resilience to extreme weather events, adaptation to climate change, and well-being/mindset/culture. Methodological considerations to close these knowledge gaps include types of methods, research partnerships and experimental designs. Research on RA can have three purposes: (1) testing RA claimed benefits (does RA work), (2) understanding how RA works, and (3) innovation within RA to optimise its practices and/or principles within the NZ context and increase its adaptability to future environmental and trade conditions. We would argue NZ agricultural sectors should combine public and private research funding to test and co-develop RA principles & practices that fit the NZ context and achieve NZ’s long-term goals.

Relevance of the One World, One Health framework to farming in Aotearoa New Zealand – a perspective piece

Alison Dewes, Paul Tapsell
November 2021

A One Health approach reflecting the interconnection of our ecosystem, human health, animal health, and other factors including biodiversity and environment enables risk to our ecosystem and our connected lives to be assessed and appropriate responses actioned. This approach makes sense in New Zealand, given the country’s relatively isolated island ecosystem and existing Indigenous Māori world view and knowledge system that emphasises holism and interconnectivity between humans, animals, and the environment. Previous agricultural policy has not taken such a holistic view and has resulted in agricultural intensification. Our eco-systems are now more fragile and require novel leadership on how to adapt with agility to a changing world of increasing disease threat, new regulations, and amplified scrutiny. We need future farm systems that meet these needs. This must be underpinned by evidence-based One Health research that informs, guides, and protects public health and well-being, our natural world, and the life-support capacity it provides.

WHITE PAPER

Regenerative Agriculture in Aotearoa New Zealand – Research Pathways to Build Science-Based Evidence and National Narratives

Lead authors: Gwen Grelet, Sam Lang with 70 co-authors

There is a pressing need for scientific testing of the limited evidence and anecdotal claims being made by regenerative agriculture practitioners and proponents. This new white paper sets out 17 priority research topics identified by 200+ representatives of New Zealand’s major agricultural sectors, regenerative agriculture farmers, and professionals in the wider agri-food system. The white paper introduces 11 principles for regenerative farming in New Zealand emerging from farmer focus groups, applicable to all sectors. There is significant overlap on the continuum of practices between mainstream and regenerative agriculture. The white paper examines areas of compatibility between mainstream and regenerative farming practices and strategies. Regenerative farmers appear likely to question the status quo, and look for new opportunities and different ways of living, working and improving their farming system.

Conference Presentations

Regenerative agriculture in Aotearoa New Zealand – Research pathways

Gwen Grelet (Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research)
Joint New Zealand Veterinary Association & NZVNA Conference: Stronger Together (Sheep & Beef Cattle session), 23 June 2021

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