Regenerative agriculture debate – where tribalism trumps pragmatism

It is with some trepidation that I dip my toe into the murky waters of the regenerative agriculture debate. As an interested observer from the sidelines, I have found the debate to be polarising and highly emotive, reducing our ability to rigorously interrogate regenerative agriculture practices to the extent that we should be.

Unfortunately, the diverging views around regenerative agriculture has manifested itself into those who support such practices and those who question its authenticity, with no quarter given between. Worryingly, this form of tribalism does represent an increasing trend in today's society where individuals seek to simplify things into easy binary terms of right or wrong, which limits their appetite to actively seek out and engage with more diverse perspectives.

This is further exacerbated through the influence of social media, unlimited access to information from the internet and sophisticated algorithms to direct news and media intake, and provides a platform for like-minded users to frame-up and reinforce a shared narrative within echo chambers. Unfortunately, this leads to a level of distrust of anybody operating outside of that chamber and a general reluctance to discuss other points of views.

There is no shortage of engaging and thought-provoking Youtube clips, media articles and information sources available on farmers applying regenerative agriculture practices within their farm systems. These are mostly internationally-based stories, and I can see how certain Youtube clips showing the transformation of farms in arid climates into productive fields is appealing. If this were a viral media campaign, I would say the advocates for regenerative agriculture have been phenomenally successful in promoting their farming practices and principles compared to more conventional-based farming systems.

As a relative newcomer to regenerative agriculture compared to the US and Australia, our farmers and others are trying to work out which practices work, and don't work, in New Zealand's temperate climate. This also needs to extend to determining what regenerative agriculture actually means within a New Zealand context. The muddling and varied interpretation of what regenerative agriculture practices looks like on-farm has no doubt confused our ability to have reasonable broad-based discussions on the subject. This is further compounded by the rhetoric that regenerative agriculture is a continually evolving set of principles.

Even under the Primary Sector Council's Fit for a Better World Strategy, a different tack has been taken with regenerative agriculture being referred to as something we have always done. The Council notes that New Zealand has a 'long tradition of regenerative practices and principles including of enriching soil health, holistic management, balance, diversity, respect and connection with past and future generations.'.

I expect there are large numbers of farmers who might already consider their farming practices to be regenerative, but don't choose to label these as such. Some of the outcomes being sought under regenerative agriculture practices (e.g. better soil health, increased macroinvertebrates, higher water retention etc) would be the same types of outcomes that other farmers would also strive for. In fact, conventional-based farming enterprises may be closer to some of the principles of regenerative agriculture than is generally portrayed in the media and by various commentators on the subject.

A positive thing to come from the debate is the desire to test some purported benefits of regenerative agriculture practices on-farm. Currently, the Ministry for Primary Industries is calling for proposals for research projects to investigate regenerative farming practices in relation to New Zealand soils, climates and farming systems.

To help better inform and equip rural professionals when discussing regenerative agriculture practices with their farming clients, we brought together a range of articles in the March 2021 issue of The Journal to assess different standpoints on the subject.

I encourage you to approach the subject with an open mind and actively interrogate the facts and claims being made. It is also important to analyse how you inform yourself in developing more diverse perspectives on regenerative agriculture practices, or for that matter any other new and developing areas within the primary industry in expanding your understanding and knowledge base to have more informed discussions with your clients on regenerative agriculture and its many parts.