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Incentives for Change

Overview of Regenerative Agriculture in Aotearoa

Five reports released today provide timely insights into regenerative agriculture in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2021. A webinar to be held on Tuesday 26 October (12–1pm) will discuss these reports.

Five reports released today provide timely insights into regenerative agriculture in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2021.

Regenerative agriculture is emerging as a global movement, with a vision of agriculture that regenerates the natural world while producing ‘nutrient-dense’ food and providing farmers with good livelihoods. Momentum has been building throughout the food system, from farmers to multinational food companies like McCain, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Unilever, General Mills, and Danone.  

Interest in the ‘regenerative’ approach to food production has also been steadily increasing among New Zealand farmers, industry, processors and marketers. This has highlighted the need to better understand what regenerative agriculture means in the context of our country – and for scientific testing of its claimed benefits.

The five reports released today include an outline of some of the regenerative principles applied in New Zealand, and the outcomes and research needed by representatives of four key New Zealand agricultural sectors (dairy, sheep and beef, arable, and viticulture). The outcomes being sought by representatives of these sector groups included: decisions based on long-term outcomes; achieving pride in farming; increasing profitability rather than merely increasing production; continuous learning; and positioning New Zealand as a world leader in regenerative agriculture.

One report provides a short history of ‘alternative agricultures’ to show where regenerative agriculture has emerged from – and tackles the interesting question of whether any farming system can be called ‘scientific' or ‘unscientific'.

Another provides an overview on te ao Māori (the Māori worldview) and regenerative agriculture. Although alignment has been suggested by many across all agricultural sectors, much of the work to explore and understand the linkages between tikanga-led food and fibre production and regenerative agriculture principles is still in progress or yet to be done. It is vital that this work is led by Māori experts and farmers.

The five reports are:

  1. Project overview and statement of purpose
  2. A short guide to the ‘alternative agricultures'
  3. Tangata ahu whenua: nurturing our landscapes
  4. Regenerative principles applied in New Zealand
  5. Insights from four key New Zealand ag sectors
A webinar about these reports was held on 26 October 2021

About the research project

The reports were produced by a research project led by Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research senior researcher Dr Gwen Grelet, and independent social researcher Sam Lang, who is also a sheep and beef farmer and an extension manager with Quorum Sense.

The Regenerative Agriculture project will produce a total of 20 reports this year, with subsequent reports to be released weekly through November.

Dr Grelet says regenerative agriculture is not a magic bullet, but its grass-roots popularity with farmers and incentives for adoption from some of the world's largest food companies mean it also has potential for driving the transformation of New Zealand’s agri-food system to help move our country closer to its goals.

“Now is an exciting time for scientists and farmers to work together towards a better understanding of regenerative agriculture, and what benefits may – or may not – arise from the adoption of regenerative agriculture in New Zealand,” says Dr Grelet.

The project was funded by the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, the NEXT Foundation and Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research.

New approach to research is needed

Regenerative agriculture research is underway in New Zealand, but it requires a departure from traditional agricultural research, says Dr Grelet. “Farmers use and adapt regenerative agriculture practices to optimise farm performance for multiple benefits simultaneously. This isn't easy to measure using conventional academic approaches.”

Traditional agricultural science can often take a linear approach: knowledge is shared from scientists to farmers, who might then adopt one change and observe the result. This process often takes months or years.

A report released today suggests that research into regenerative agriculture demands a ‘complexity aware’ approach, in which farmers are research partners, and knowledge comes from multiple research disciplines and other sources of innovation (such as business or technology). Farmers might adopt several changes at once, so it’s much harder to draw a straight line from one change to one outcome.

The challenge for researchers is to deploy robust, rigorous, and replicable experimental approaches – while also accounting for uncertainty, changeability and complexity. (This approach is briefly outlined in the Project overview and statement of purpose report.)

This approach to research requires curiosity, open-mindedness, and working together, says Dr Grelet. “We are so fortunate to live in a small country, where incredibly talented people work and live just on our doorstep, and where the impact of one’s actions are perceived almost immediately.”

“In my opinion, if one country can successfully undertake the collaborative and cohesive research projects that are required, it is New Zealand.”

Register for the webinar series

A webinar to be held on Tuesday 26 October (12–1pm) will discuss these reports, including thoughts on how regenerative agriculture emerged from the many ‘alternative agricultures’, insights on questions often asked about regenerative agriculture, and the different considerations and opportunities for Māori farming entities.

Speakers: Dr Gwen Grelet (Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research), Hugh Good (Beef + Lamb NZ), Dr Charles Merfield (Future Farming Centre), Dr Selai Letica (Our Land and Water), Sam Lang (independent social researcher)

EDIT: This webinar has now been held, see video embedded above or on Vimeo here. Register for the remaining webinars in this series below:


More information:

Author

Annabel McAleer

Senior Communications Advisor, Our Land and Water

15 Comments

  1. Webinar question on October 29, 2021 at 8:55 am

    Does NZ have a goal of moving to regenerative agriculture and should there be more support in order to transition to it?

    • Webinar panellists on October 29, 2021 at 8:56 am

      We are not aware of the government or any primary industry body having a position on this or a transition goal. However, MPI and other parts of government and the wider primary sectors are clearly interested in exploring possible benefits of regenerative agriculture for New Zealand.

  2. Webinar question on October 29, 2021 at 8:56 am

    What would help more Māori-led work happen in regen ag?

    • Selai Letica on October 29, 2021 at 8:57 am

      More funding! Research funders should ensure that diverse voices contribute to funding decisions, which can lead to investment in research programmes that are more inclusive and holistic, with increased funding for Māori research and implementation. People involved in research can also help by becoming good allies to Māori, to help free Māori experts from the load of doing a ‘double-shift’ when they do research. Māori experts often have multiple roles as researchers, knowledge brokers and relationship managers. When a team member has too many roles it slows everyone down, but mostly it slows Māori down.

  3. Webinar question on October 29, 2021 at 8:57 am

    It seems that everyone who is ‘regen’ has a great experience. Do the definition/ principles discussed here make it easy for people who don’t have a positive experience to be dismissed as ‘not regen’ because they were not continually improving?

    • Sam Lang on October 29, 2021 at 8:59 am

      The mainstream media tends to showcase mostly success stories. However, if you spend time with groups of farmers who are trying to follow regen principles and adopting new practices, there are plenty of things that can and do go wrong. I think the principles encourage farmers to treat failures as almost necessary learning opportunities and, certainly within Quorum Sense, there is a great culture of sharing failures and questions as much as successes.

  4. Webinar question on October 29, 2021 at 8:59 am

    Isn’t the ‘challenge’ with defining regen ag lessened if you don’t focus on practices (like organics traditionally has) and instead look at principles, mechanisms and/or outcomes? It seems that this way it can encompass a plurality of views and practices while allowing an evaluation on whether a land management system in any given context is regenerative or not – regardless of anyone’s personal philosophy.

    • Charles Merfield on October 29, 2021 at 9:00 am

      Focusing on outcomes is a really interesting idea and is discussed in quite a bit more depth in an upcoming paper, ‘New Zealand’s monitoring frameworks for agricultural sustainability and assurance’ [to be released on 19 November].

      It appears there is a shift from ‘input’ and practice-controlling systems like organics to outcomes-focused systems like regen. However, as a working framework principles are often really broad, and many things can be read into them that are not intended by those ‘inside the tent’. Organic agriculture also has principles which have been democratically and definitely codified, see https://www.ifoam.bio/principles-organic-agriculture-brochure. These principles could just as well serve for regen but there are a lot of differences between organic and regen as they stand today.

  5. Webinar question on October 29, 2021 at 9:05 am

    Is the regenerative concept entering urban environments? Parks, lawns and gardens? For improvement and to bring society alongside.

    • Charles Merfield on October 29, 2021 at 9:06 am

      Yes, very much. Urban farming is very much interested and also doing regen. There is also growing interest in the gardening space.

  6. Webinar question on October 29, 2021 at 9:07 am

    Sam’s circle of principles reveals a significant challenge. Farmers rank social wellbeing the highest want, and a mindset principle – but it would seem that product markets, definitions, standards meeting regulation, recording evidence etc, especially in our overseas markets, are based on instructional principles. Therefore, what social constructs do we need to create/foster in NZ that enables the philosophy/mindset to get some sort of value to the farmers collectively to assist their social well-being? Quorum Sense would be one – but what would connect with all NZers?

    • Charles Merfield on October 29, 2021 at 9:08 am

      This is a really good question. I don’t have an answer, but this would be a really important discussion and debate to have. The first thing that does leap to mind is social media, in that it allows producers to tell their stories direct to consumers / citizens and get this kind of thing across.

  7. Webinar question on October 29, 2021 at 11:08 am

    There are many people involved and interested in regen ag in different sectors, from scientists to farmers… but are there enough bridges and connections between them? My feeling is that scholars may feel a reluctance from farmers to change their practices, while on the other end farmers may think scholars are still promoting industrial or conventional farming practices and feel they have to do the changes on their own.

    • Sam Lang on October 29, 2021 at 11:09 am

      Many farmers and scientists consider the current agricultural science structures in NZ do not promote collaboration between scientists and farmers and in many cases actually hinder such collaboration and communication. Despite this, there are a growing number of farmers keen to work with scientists on developing regen systems, and a growing number of scientists starting to work in this area, so those connections are happening. Our white paper highlighted the need for genuine scientist-farmer collaborations, where the farmers are heavily involved in the design and the delivery of the research. We are definitely seeing that approach being taken by some researchers – but of course, there could be many more bridges created, between farmers and consumers, and between scientists and brands for example.

    • Hugh Good on October 29, 2021 at 11:11 am

      Beef + Lamb NZ’s point of view is that ultimately it’s up to farmers to decide how they farm – conventional, regen, or otherwise. We want to provide as much evidence as possible, whether it be from the market, or science-based around impacts and potential opportunities from different or innovative approaches.

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