Scientists have been trying to cut through the hype of regenerative agriculture, writes Professor Jacequeline Rowarth.

It takes courage to tell people that you were wrong.

Linzi and Jeff Keen, the Southland couple whose move to regenerative agriculture ended badly, have been particularly brave in telling their story, given the hype that surrounds the concept of regenerative agriculture. More than $54 million has been invested by the Ministry for Primary Industries and industry partners in research projects as part of a “regenerating Aotearoa” investigation.

What the Keens found is that the hype obscures the reality.

For them, despite the advice from ‘experts’, the results were decreased production and decreased income, rapidly.

They have shared their story with journalist Jill Herron.

In brief, the Keens were told that regenerative agriculture would be the path to lowering emissions and saving the planet – farming with lower inputs and a premium for the product.

The reality was that by the second growth season, their plants and animals were going downhill “and the workload felt greater”.

The Keens know that they were mining the soil of nutrients and have acknowledged that their ‘green’ approach to farming meant that the starting point did not involve capital topdressing, as has been involved in some transitions.

Scientists are sad for the Keens because they had been trying to cut through the hype (what the Keens referred to as marketing) with the results from research that already exists

The withholding of superphosphate trials started in 1984. The timing was aligned with the removal of farm subsidies, some of which had been supporting farm development with phosphate fertilisers. In a series of research papers (published on the New Zealand Grassland Association website) scientists reported that no production drop was observed initially, but that with time, the drop was clear. Higher Olsen P soils were buffered from change for longer than low Olsen P soils. The conclusion from economic analysis (published in 1990) was that “fertiliser cessation is a sound strategy to survive periods of low product price to fertiliser cost ratio. However, it will decrease sustainable productivity and hence farm resale value”.

A further paper on the trials, published in 1999, reported that changes in dry matter production and botanical composition were continuing to occur. Over the 15 years, the impacts of no superphosphate (i.e. phosphate inputs) included a decrease in Olsen P, decreases in annual pasture production of 10–17% (Whatawhata) and 22–42% (Te Kuiti), decreases in the abundance of productive and desirable species (15–20% for ryegrass and white clover), and increases in the abundance of undesirable species (browntop and other low-fertility grasses). The authors warned that these systems might not yet have reached a new equilibrium.

Although it is believed that organic production systems pick up on yield after a period of adjustment, overseas research does not support the statements, and nor does the New Zealand phosphate research. Why would it? If nutrients are being exported, they must be replaced from somewhere – and the Southland experience exemplifies the difficulties.

The Keens addressed the depletion by increasing the inputs to allow for the outputs – the latter providing the income for redevelopment of their property.

The premium they hoped for is still elusive – for everybody. On a webinar in September, Fonterra executives were asked whether there would be a premium if agriculture was brought into a carbon programme (e.g. the Emissions Trading Scheme or He Waka Eke Noa). The answer was that although Fonterra had been on the sustainability path for at least five years, “it would be fair to say that progress had been slower than anticipated”.

Similarly, Silver Fern Farms has Toitu accreditation and is assessing farmers through the Savory regenerative assessment but has yet to achieve a premium.

The big concern for productive agriculture in the future is that when costs of production increase and prices paid for products don’t, there is a natural temptation to look for cheaper options.

Couple that with the societal pressure to be more sustainable, whatever people think that means, and it isn’t surprising that farmers are looking for ‘a better way’. Everybody is open to persuasion by clever marketers, leveraging on a desire – witness the advertisements for “just three minutes a day to lose weight and get fit using the miracle machine…”

The Keens story is not unusual except that they have been prepared to talk about it.

In all the ‘better way’ promotions, the first question to ask is: “Does the expert doing the marketing have qualifications and a track record of success in professional work that is relevant to NZ?”

Ask for facts, evidence and data – testimonials are not the same thing.

David Connor, Emeritus Professor of Agronomy at the University of Melbourne, stated last year that “the ‘transformationists’ avoid scientific scrutiny by publishing in colourful promotional literature rather than in peer-reviewed journals”. His paper is published in the peer reviewed journal Outlook on Agriculture, which has an impact factor of 3.3. (For comparison, the NZ Journal of Agricultural Research is 2.2.)

Context is everything

Ask for context.

Earlier this year, researchers from European universities stated (in Global Food Security – a journal with Impact Factor 7.8) that “the term ‘conventional agriculture’ has been weaponised”. By comparing the virtues of ‘regenerative’ agriculture with the negative aspects of ‘conventional’ agriculture, regenerative advocates ‘prove’ that their system is better.

Context is everything, and cherry picking can end sadly, as the Keens have found.

For New Zealand, much of the research for least impact food production has been done and research continues to build on that strong foundation. The results are publicly available – search the NZ Grassland Association website or ask a scientist.

And ask, “If this new system is that good, how come we aren’t already doing it?” It applies to farming just as it does to fitness in three minutes a day.

New Zealand has the most innovative, adaptive and resourceful farmers in the world – there’s a paper about that on the Grassland website, published 2013. Funding research to help farmers do even better would seem a more productive investment than a ‘do-over’ of agricultural systems to fit the New Zealand context. And, yes, there are papers available on that as well.

A bit of research on the web, and some simple questions, will help sort hype from reality. So will the Keen’s story.

  • Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, has a PhD in Soil Science (nutrient cycling) and is a director of Ravensdown, DairyNZ and Deer Industry NZ. The analysis and conclusions above are her own.