27 Nov 2020

Regen Agriculture a Rehash?

From Country Life, 9:12 pm on 27 November 2020
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Photo: Susan Murray/RNZ

Over the past five or six years the farming technique called regenerative agriculture, RA, which focuses on soil health, biodiversity and climatic resilience, has been gaining traction.

Both from farmers who are using the techniques, to the Green Party, some consultancy firms and even Beef and Lamb New Zealand are looking into the farming method.

Those who use it, swear by it.

However, there's disquiet with many scientists, consultants and farmers, worrying that the wheel is being re-invented and regenerative agriculture is not needed in New Zealand.

Soil scientist Doug Edmeades says he could weep that some of the already small pool of government research money is being funnelled into promoting regenerative agriculture, "one point five million dollars" of it he said.

Dr Edmeades said regenerative agriculture was developed in North America and Australia as a way to improve the organic matter in soils that had been overgrazed, overcropped and overcultivated, or had blown away. "In countries where there were dust bowls.  That is NOT New Zealand," he said.

He said New Zealand soils have good levels of organic matter, carbon, and some are reaching the point where they can not store any more.

And probably what spins his wheels the most is what he says is the lack of science behind any claims.  

New Zealand farmers have been doing rotational grazing, keeping ground covered and moving towards no-tillage agriculture for years he said.

"Our farmers are already regenerative in that sense. They are already doing all those things naturally. It just hasn't been explained to them in that way. And that's the problem. RA is claiming new ground as though they are the first to think of it,  and that is not the case."

Asked if maybe it can still be a good marketing tool if people are talking about it on the world stage:

"That's fine by me, that's great.  Whatever we can do to market and get into markets to sell our products, but let us not delude ourselves that we will somehow improve soil quality and reduce greenhouse gases as a consequence.  That won't happen. I agree as a marketing tool, but as a scientific understanding it doesn't help us at all."

Edmeades also takes issue with RA techniques such as leaving pastures long and having multiple plant species.

He says New Zealand's whole $21 billion pastoral farming system is built around having a good legume, in this case, white clover, to add natural nitrogen to the system.

"White clover has a very prostrate habit and it doesn't like to be competing with big tall lanky grass.

"That's the very opposite of what science says you need to do if you're going to maximise the amount of natural organic nitrogen going into the soil. Anything that you do that is going to undermine or negate the value and importance of clover nitrogen is a bad thing to do."