New report lays out scientific framework to learn more about regenerative agriculture

Regenerative agriculture remains controversial in New Zealand.
Regenerative agriculture remains controversial in New Zealand. Photo credit: File / Getty

Scientists are calling for both advocates and sceptics of regenerative agriculture to work together and "focus on identifying any true benefits" the practice could have for New Zealand, rather than bickering among themselves.

A white paper released on Monday, titled Regenerative Agriculture in Aotearoa New Zealand – Research Pathways to Build Science-Based Evidence and National Narrative, has identified 17 priority research topics on the subject that could give more insight into how effective regenerative farming really is.

Lead author Gwen Grelet, a senior researcher at Manaaki Whenua - Land Research, says although more and more farmers are transitioning to regenerative practices, much of the claimed benefits remain anecdotal and lack scientific evidence.

She said although regenerative agriculture potentially has an important role to play in the country, there is an urgent need for both clarity about what regenerative agriculture actually is as well for scientific testing of its claimed benefits.

"Regenerative agriculture has huge momentum internationally in all parts of the food system," said Dr Grelet.

"It is not a magic bullet but its grass-roots popularity with farmers and food consumers mean it has huge potential for driving the transformation of Aotearoa's agri-food system to move our country closer to its goals."

The new report comes after consultation with more than 200 people, including regenerative farmers, representatives on the country's major agricultural sectors and professionals in the wider agri-food system.

Regenerative agriculture remains controversial in New Zealand. Although there is no set definition of exactly what it is, most agree it takes a holistic approach to farming, focusing on building diversity and improving the health of topsoil - all while striving to avoid the use of synthetic fertilisers.

Proponents say it could be a way of combating climate change, biodiversity loss and declining water quality, but those critical of the practice argue it's "pseudo-science" lacking empirical evidence. Others say New Zealand farmers are already by and large farming in a regenerative way, and the technique is not fit for our land because it is not "degenerated" in the first place.

Despite the controversy, Dr Grelet said the consultation - which took place between June and November 2020 - revealed "many areas of strong agreement between advocates and sceptics".

"It's time to stop bickering and focus on identifying any true benefits regenerative agriculture might have for New Zealand," she said.

In order to move past that bickering, the paper proposes a way of developing a scientific framework for guiding future research into regenerative agriculture in New Zealand and to understand what the practice means for the country.

Of the 17 topics pinpointed as needing more research, 10 of those were related to concerns from the industry representatives.

They were:

(1) Freshwater outcomes; (2) food quality and safety; (3) farmer empowerment and mindset; (4) long-term viability of whole systems; (5) animal welfare; (6) on-farm all taxa (total) biodiversity; and (7) soil carbon. 

Industry representatives also asked researchers to assess how regenerative agriculture might increase (8) resilience; (9) accountability in our food systems and (10) access to premium/niche markets.

Consultation with farmers already using regenerative methods revealed a need for more scientific studies on how the practice affects:

(11) Soil health; (12) profitability and production; and (13) whole-of-system environment, social and economic outcomes at farm-scale. 

The remaining topics highlighted as needing more study came through consultation with professionals from the wider agri-food system, who called for:

(14) Data to de-risk investment and transition to regenerative agriculture; (15) 'conventional-style' practice guides for regenerative agriculture, customised for different sectors and NZ contexts; (16) an understanding of the 'regenerative agriculture continuum' and (17) clarity around the need for a definition/certification for regenerative agriculture (or the lack thereof).

The paper also identified 11 main principles for regenerative farming, although refrained from offering a precise definition of the practice.

Sam Lang, research co-lead and a farmer himself who is also manager of the Quorum Sense farmer extension project, said although a succinct definition would be useful for marketing purposes, the authors chose not to give one because of the risk of "constraining an evolving concept", and because it was important that any New Zealand definition be anchored in te ao Māori (the Māori world view).

"Our research examined people's understanding of regenerative agriculture through outcomes, principles, practices and mindset," he said

"We found that all are important. While it is tempting to focus on novel or innovative practices, exploring the influence of farming principles and farmers' mindsets could be more valuable."

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