In 2020, news headlines have been dominated by global crises – the Australian wildfires, the Covid-19 pandemic, even locusts and murder hornets.
Amid this stream of relentlessly apocalyptic news, one solution has consistently broken through to grab some headlines itself: regenerative agriculture, or ‘regen ag’.
New Zealand is thirsty for knowledge about regenerative agriculture.
It’s unlikely the government will invest in scaling out regen ag principles without solid, New Zealand-specific evidence, says Professor Rich McDowell, chief scientist of the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge.
To make sure evidence is gathered quickly and provides what farmers and policymakers need, Our Land and Water has partnered with the NEXT Foundation and aligned with MPI to fund a new research project.
The Regenerative Agriculture research team will develop a framework for building a scientific evidence base specific to regenerative agriculture in New Zealand, so that future research is able to quickly fill the evidence gaps.
The team is led by Dr Gwen Grelet, soil ecologist at Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, and Samuel Lang, manager of Quorum Sense and past participant in Our Land and Water’s Next Generation Influencer programme.
Over the next six months, researchers will speak with a diverse range of farmers, representatives of key industry and government bodies, and scientists to identify the questions they would like answered about regenerative agriculture in New Zealand.
“There is a growing body of anecdotal evidence for the multiple benefits of regen ag, be it environmental, economic, social, psychological or cultural, but scientific studies are scarce and restricted to overseas systems. So we don’t have enough scientific data yet to compare these benefits to other current ways of farming in New Zealand,” says Dr Grelet.
“This is partly because regenerative ag emphasizes adaptive management strategies that seek to optimise the performance of the whole farm, for multiple benefits simultaneously. This isn't easy to quantify using conventional academic approaches.”
“One of the most exciting things about this research is that we intend to assemble a framework that includes multiple knowledge systems, combining academic knowledge with the ways farmers know and appraise their whole system.”
The project is highly collaborative. The research team includes scientists from several New Zealand research organisations (including Plant and Food Research, Otago Innovations, Lincoln University, Bragato Research Institute, AgResearch, DairyNZ, University of Canterbury, NorthTech) and overseas collaborators.
The team will co-author a report together with representatives of industry (eg Beef + Lamb NZ, FAR, Winegrowers NZ), government (eg Ministry for the Environment), consultants and farming community leaders (eg NZX, Pamū, Quorum Sense, Integrity Soils, Abron, Taiao National Resource Management).
Several additional collaborators are still to be confirmed.
The report, due to be completed in November 2020, will cover:
The research and outcome assessment framework highlighted in this report will be used by MPI to inform its investment decisions for the Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund.
Meanwhile, “farmers are cracking ahead with this,” says research co-leader Sam Lang.
“The number of farmers incorporating regenerative principles and approaches into their farm systems and practices is growing rapidly, and they're keen to validate the potential benefits and opportunities.”
“We're hoping this research will support farmers to communicate how their farming approaches benefit their customers, communities and regulators.”