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What is this regenerative agriculture thing anyway?

Written By: - Date published: 11:42 am, September 13th, 2020 - 32 comments
Categories: Environment, farming, farming, food, sustainability - Tags: , ,

The Green Party released their Farm for the Future agriculture policy yesterday, and stands alongside Greenpeace’s ongoing Regenerative Farming Revolution campaign. Given the state of New Zealand land and water, changing how we do farming should be a strong political topic for the left this year. We need to get past the left’s position of blaming farmers for land and water pollution (as if we don’t eat farmed food), and instead build a strong political movement for changing how farming is done, that educates the largely urban public and supports farmers to do the right thing.

Sometimes people say they don’t get what regenag is, so this is a post where I lay out some of the ground for understanding it.  I’m not a farmer, but I garden and have long been in subcultures in NZ were regenag is the norm.

Regenerative agriculture is based on the idea that nature is a powerhouse of sustainability and resiliency. It uses nature mimicry to establish productive systems that are self sustaining, require little external inputs, and that focus on ecological cycles like those that build soil rather than mechanistic systems that artificially force growth and produce large amounts of pollution. Building and maintaining soil biological health is central, because it’s the key to systems that regenerate rather than degrade.

At a basic level this means two things.

  1. Sustainable: this refers to whole systems that are designed to maintain themselves in a good state over time by:
    * being renewable largely within the system (the system produces its own resources rather than importing them from other landbases)
    * being non-extractive (the system doesn’t remove remove more resources or fertility than are being generated)
    * having built-in ways of reintegrating or reusing any waste that is produced (rather than relying on landfill mentality)
  2. Regenerative: refers to the capacity of such systems to not only sustain themselves but to actively restore biodiversity and fertility over time. Inherent in this is the idea that the system has been damaged in some way, usually by how we manage it, and that we need to change the system and remedy the damage.

In regenag terms, it’s not sufficient to do less damage than the farm down the road. Cleaning up a toxic dump, planting riparian strips, reducing nitrate load are all good things to do, and heading in the right direction. They may even be regenerative in the specific site but the whole system itself isn’t necessarily actively regenerative.

Here are three principles:

Soil restoration is a core component. Regenag has soil as a central focus because it recognises that the natural, stable ecosystems that sustain themselves over time are utterly dependent on the soil food web.

Conventional ag practices such as ploughing, pesticide use, artificial fertiliser, burnoffs, reducing biodiversity, and overgrazing tend to degrade soil over time, the system can’t sustaining itself indefinitely, needs more outside inputs and eventually fails. It should be mentioned that many conventional farmers mitigate this, and are trying to move in a better direction (hence the need for political support for regenag). Previously pastoral farming was degrading the soil/fertility relatively slowly, but industrial dairying for instance is doing it on steroids.

Biomimicry. Mimicking natural systems as much as possible because those systems are inherently sustainable, regenerative, stable and efficient. Forests don’t need to import fertiliser nor dump waste, because they are made up of natural systems that cycle most nutrients and wastes in closed loops, and are part of larger systems that the forest sits within that cycle nutrients and waste from and to the outside.

Systems thinking rather than linear thinking. It’s about the relationships between everything, and the nature of those. Counting things matters too but is secondary to understanding how things relate. This is both a conceptual skill and in ag terms is largely, at this time, contained within certain philosophical approaches to farming (eg organics, permaculture, biodynamics, food forestry). Here’s an example from food forestry.

If you want to look at examples of vibrant and successful regenerative farming operations, including in New Zealand, check out these past regenag posts,

Regenerative agriculture: The 11 minute film The Regenerators, from Greenpeace, on New Zealand regenag farmers.

Happy cows and land restoration: a short post comparing industrial beef or soy with regenag.

Climate and food security: annual cropping vs regenerative agriculture

The Essential Forest-Gardener: Robert Guyton’s ten part series on the oldest food forest in New Zealand.

What if plant-based wasn’t the answer?: radical grass farmer Joel Salatin, and Mark Shepherd’s agroforestry system integrating stock and tree systems.

Mod note: If you want to discuss the Greens’ new Farm for the Future policy, please read it first. Greenpeace’s response to the policy is useful too.

 

32 comments on “What is this regenerative agriculture thing anyway? ”

  1. Roy Cartland 1

    Excellent post. It's almost become like the farmer-hatred attributed to the greenies, townies, lefties, etc is a false-flag hit. Yes there are dreadful farmers, but many good ones who would benefit more from going regenag than status quo, and know it.

    Our alliance should be with them AGAINST the despoilers, rather than all farmers vs the rest.

    • weka 1.1

      totally agree. There are distinct problems with orgs like Fed Farmers too, that's another kete of fish. Supporting the farmers who want to do better but face barriers is an imperative. Also, getting funding into research so it's easier for farmers and bankers to get on board and trust the techniques.

  2. Robert Guyton 2

    Conventional ag will try to neuter regenerative ag by claiming "we already do this", in the same way they tried to disable pesky environmentalists by saying, "all farmers are environmentalists!". The next step is to capture and monetise any products the regen ag farmers use. Big Fert and Big Farm Advise won't simply pack up their tent and go home. Failing this, they'll simply demonise – Regenerative Agriculture threatens the entire farming industry, our trade arrangements and our history! It doesn't have to have any basis in fact.

    • weka 2.1

      pretty much. I expect both. Already happening to a degree.

    • Hunter Thompson II 2.2

      Correct, the big players in the ag sector will want to keep the status quo and carry on lining their pockets at the expense of the environment and their grandchildren.

      Farmers used to trumpet the message that they were "guardians of the land". They never mentioned water – why not, I wonder.

      • Draco T Bastard 2.2.1

        Farmers used to trumpet the message that they were "guardians of the land". They never mentioned water – why not, I wonder.

        Because they only saw themselves as guardians of their crops. I suspect that most haven't changed that world-view despite all the evidence proving them wrong.

  3. Draco T Bastard 3

    being renewable largely within the system (the system produces its own resources rather than importing them from other landbases)

    To me this is important but it comes with a flip side:

    If we don't import from other landmasses then we also cannot export to them

    This would only apply to agriculture and it would also mean that human sewage would need to be treated and fed back into the food system. We couldn't dump it in caves/mines/quarries/ the sea etcetera as that would be extracting it from the land and be against this principle:

    being non-extractive (the system doesn’t remove remove more resources or fertility than are being generated)

    IMO, if we kept within in natural cycles and their limits we cannot have an export agricultural sector.

    • Robert Guyton 3.1

      We do though, import sunlight and through that input, the products created by plants that wouldn't be here otherwise. We can also harvest from the ocean and apply that to our pastures as import. Therefore, we ought to be able to send the resulting "meat" off-shore, without depleting our stores. Make sense to you, Draco?

      • Draco T Bastard 3.1.1

        Nope, sounds like a load of bollocks.

        • Robert Guyton 3.1.1.1

          Thanks for your kind words. Plants create enormous amounts of material from bugger all. Mostly, they do it by collaboration. Even the cells that power their processes have "components"that collaborate for the greater good. All this in a closed system where bounty results. Excesses of food that has to be consumed. We have to insert ourselves into that cycle, using collaboration as our admission ticket. Bollocks piled upon bollocks!

          • Draco T Bastard 3.1.1.1.1

            Plants create enormous amounts of material from bugger all.

            Woah, plants are actually Gods?

            I didn't bother reading after that because, well, more bollocks.

            • Robert Guyton 3.1.1.1.1.1

              Plants extract carbon from thin air – they make the etheric, material. Some plants extract nitrogen from thin air. They employ the services of bacterium to do this – collaboration rules! Plants utilise water (it falls freely from the sky) in the process and it's widely-recognised that plants use a magical system called photosynthesis to split molecules, in a God-like fashion, and synthesise new compounds. On top of all this extraordinary alchemy, plants can propagate themselves without the intervention of humans!!! Very few technologies created by humans can do this seemingly simple thing, so, Gods? Perhaps so.

      • Incognito 3.1.2

        The atmosphere is a great storage place and carrier of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen that together form the main building block of and for all life forms. Sunlight provides energy. The natural cycles, however, are slow and humans are impatient.

        • Draco T Bastard 3.1.2.1

          yes

        • Robert Guyton 3.1.2.2

          Ah! Impatience! We should dismiss the opportunity to harness the extraordinarily bounteous offerings of the plant world, because we are impatient?

          • Incognito 3.1.2.2.1

            My bad, Robert, I thought the context was increased production for export (for profit). I shall not interfere again. Take care and stay safe.

  4. Robert Guyton 4

    Seabirds deposit nutrient from off shore. Space and airborne dust rains down upon us constantly. Rain, hail sleet and snow deposit more than water. Tiny insects etc. consume these materials and increase their value, as worm-gut enzymes increase the value of casts – it's a Gestalt thing. Your suggestion of humane is very relevant and the capture of that brown-gold is vital to our continued flourishing here.

  5. Robert Guyton 5

    Minerals continue to be released from the mountains to the plains. We are not a closed system. Up until recently, foreign tourist manure could have been considered an import (were it not wasted, as is the locals’ smiley

    • Stuart Munro 5.1

      It would at least free us from involvement in the conflict over subSaharan phosphate.
      https://www.wsrw.org/a105x4268

      But initiatives in that direction tend to get nobbled by greedy and stupid folk like the ones that killed Christchurch's green edge water treatment plan. They went for the diffuser offshore: "Fisheries? We don't need no steenking fisheries!" they might as well have said.

    • bwaghorn 5.2

      I read an article once (long forgotten where) that suggested that seabirds used to nest all over Aotearoa and there loss contributed to forest die back as they weren't dropping the oceans goodies all over the place . Makes sense that that is the missing link in the nz nutrient cycle.
      Edit I see you say similar upthread.

      • Robert Guyton 5.2.1

        I've been to the mutton bird islands off the south coast where those seabirds still do their thing and the soil there is like potting mix, meters deep!

      • RedLogix 5.2.2

        Yes, before humans arrived NZ was essentially a land of trees, birds, snails and slugs. It was a unique ecosystem that we'll never get back.

        • Robert Guyton 5.2.2.1

          Frogs and geckos too, but we shouldn't hope to bring it all back; we are where we are but we have good brains and now must synthesise, gather in technologies and processes, corral thinkers and make the best of what we have, always believing we can do better than what we have now and better than what was here before we were. Big ask. Only option. Imo.

  6. Dennis Frank 6

    A good outline. There'll be an inflexion point when universities start teaching it, eh? Uptake by farmers will get accelerated when they see the establishment jumping aboard the bandwagon.

    Since it's all about efficiency of land use, economists ought to be able to get their heads around it eventually too. Have you met a Green economist? I haven't. Paradigm not yet shifted, I presume.

    Both of these considerations point to leaders of the Green movement catalysing collaboration in a multi-disciplinary context. The necessity, thereof. Silo-thinking has them locked into merely doing their jobs.

  7. bwaghorn 7

    Thankyou .

    Just a few more dumb questions so I can get simple answers.

    So no inputs at all ? Or is it no non natural inputs.

    Does it have to be organic?

    • Robert Guyton 7.1

      Though you didn't ask me smiley I reckon it's about trend and direction, at this point; no absolutes but moving as fast as possible, toward a minimal-alien-input state; no shipped phosphates, no palm kernel etc. Closing the loop doesn't't mean the loop must be closed instantly; that's impossible, but the direction isn't impossible to take. Globally, this must happen if we humans are going to make it through the tangle we have made. As foreign inputs are reduced, that which is farmed will change in response. Our ancient native forests required little in the way of shipped-cargo-food, so it's clearly possible to grow huge amounts of plants with minimal input from overseas. If stock farmers can tune their practices so that they too can function profitably with the same minimalization of out-sourced materials, their industries could continue.

    • weka 7.2

      "So no inputs at all ? Or is it no non natural inputs."

      I would say rather than absolutes it's about making sure the inputs are part of regenerative and sustainable systems. So no importing PKE that is being exploitatively extracted from rainforests overseas so we can overstock dairy farms. But perhaps a smaller dairy farm converting to organic can bring in minerals as needed to improve the soil initially. We have to start somewhere and I think there's a case for being pragmatic within the disciplines. It helps to think about the whole supply chain and what is involved, in ecological terms.

      "Does it have to be organic?"

      There are many benefits to having certified organic farms and market gardens. The original western organic movement was called Soil and Health. There are clear connections between pesticide use, artificial fert, and soil degradation. It's not that pesticides could never be used ever, but more how one would integrate them into the system. Most people find that when working with a whole system they largely become unnecessary.

      I'm with Robert on the right direction at this point stuff too.

  8. RedLogix 8

    From a political perspective agriculture is one of the top four or five key responsibilities of good government. It deserves to be up there with education, health and security as a top priority IMHO.

    Sustainable agricultural systems are highly desirable and well within our reach, but the kind of sustained research, development and political continuity necessary to implement them are not.

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