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Internationally renowned ecologist Allan Savory’s TED Talk with over 4 million views on YouTube titled ‘How to green the world’s deserts and reverse climate change‘ was my introduction to the concept of ‘regenerative agriculture’.

Allan has dedicated his life to turning around ‘desertification’ which he refers to two-thirds of the world’s grasslands degraded from erosion from intensive livestock grazing and extensive soil cultivation.

Foundation for Arable Research here in Canterbury believes the downside of the holistic land management practice is it was developed overseas in areas where soils had been seriously depleted, and buying into the regenerative agriculture narrative means we are making a false assumption that New Zealand’s soils are in a bad state.

‘Our pasture soils are the envy of the world. Our Australian friends would give their eyetooth for our organic matter. However, our cropping soils with continuous cultivation is where the organic matter levels are depleted,’ stated Ravensdown’s General Manager of Innovation and Strategy, Mike Manning. I still want to weep when I see paddocks being worked up amidst a Canterbury nor’west, sending thousand-year-old non-renewable, nutrient-rich soil blowing up into the sky.

Rightly or wrongly, cultivation and intensive livestock grazing to get the most amount of food produced per square metre to satisfy the bank is a result of the Labour Government removing subsidies to farmers in the 1980s.

To survive as an economy we had to become the most efficient agricultural country in the world to stay competitive in the heavily subsidised European and US markets. It got us through the global financial crisis and improved our standard of living but it’s been coming at a human and environmental cost.

‘The real joy and prosperity about farming has been stripped from farmers, and they feel a bit lost because it’s become such a box ticking exercise. It’s not so creative anymore,’ says Jono Frew, one of the founding members of the regenerative agriculture movement, Quorum Sense.

It has often been criticised that regenerative agriculture as a farming practice lacks profitability due to its low-intensive nature, but Jono explains that his Natural Performance clients are actually making more profit due to a decrease in the cost of their inputs such as synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and an increase in soil health improving yields. 

A new Primary Sector Council vision called Fit for a Better World released by Food and Fibres Aotearoa in December 2019 at Lincoln University says we can do better with our farming systems and that we need to have a more ‘regenerative’ mindset. 
We now have a social licence to farm to work with millennial urbanised consumers who want to form a deeper relationship with the effects of their consumerism on the environment. Sure, they are sourcing their knowledge from vilifying US-based Netflix documentaries but we need to appease their demands for a more ‘regenerative’ mindset as a food production system. 

‘With regenerative agriculture, I see farmers really quickly get the spark reignited in what they’re doing and why they are doing it. I’m really enjoying seeing that, it’s happening really quick,’ exclaims Jono.

Are we already fit for a better world with our New Zealand farming practices and just calling it a new name? Or are we on the cusp of a revolution that positions us firmly as the world’s most environmentally friendly food producers?

Sarah Perriam of Perriam Media is an agri-food broadcaster, MC/speaker and communication consultant specialising in the future of New Zealand’s food and fibre industries. Listen to Sarah’s new food and farming radio show ‘Sarah’s Country’ out now.

Images Joel Rock