The case for a Regenerative Organic farming framework

The time has come for the government and the people of Aotearoa to take a bold step to improve our health, our wealth and our sustainability.

Jacinda Adern speaking to her Labour Election Day party after her landslide win yesterday, on the 17th of October 2020

The people of Aotearoa have overwhelmingly voted for Jacinda Adern’s style of politics, we clearly want progressive change and a future that is kinder, more inclusive, and more sustainable. And without any handbrakes and government partners diverting attention and funding to such redundant enterprises as the horse racing industry, the time has now come to also map a pathway to help farmers practice in a regenerative organic way. By focussing on soil health farmers can make more profit, grow healthier food, reverse environmental damage, mitigate climate change, strengthen communities and improve their own mental well-being. The Auckland Organic Business Collective (AOBC), a group of like-minded business owners, believe it is one of the most promising ‘technologies’ to improve our own and the planet’s wellbeing. It affects every single one of us – the public, farmers and governors, and we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to move to a regenerative, resilient and inclusive circular economy.

For the longest time in the evolution of humankind the natural forces of our surrounding environment were a serious threat to our existence. The biggest change came, when we started domesticating animals and using their vastly superior muscle power to plow the earth thus allowing us to farm, build permanent shelters, and settle down. The dawn of agriculture around 9500BC marks the start of our successful manipulation of nature for our own benefit. In the almost 11,500  years since then our inert western dualistic view of ‘nature as threat’ has not changed much, but we have become so good at manipulating, domesticating and out-right destroying the natural environment that we are now faced with the opposite threat – destruction of our species from a lack of nature. Nowhere is this more evident than in the areas of farming and our own health. We use fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides to kill anything we don’t want on our farms and we think that we can grow sufficient food by just throwing synthetic fertiliser onto plants. Industrial agriculture, the product of the so-called ‘green revolution’ of the mid-20th century, has caused massive environmental degradation and created an epidemic of life-style related disease – which are treated by the application of more chemicals in the shape of pills and other drugs. Taken over by Big Food, agriculture has become an industry driven by profit with yield prioritised over nutrition and sustainability. Coupled with the agriculture industry’s huge reliance on fossil fuels for energy and chemicals, this is no longer sustainable, and change is needed.

Human exploitation of the natural world and depletion of biodiversity is starting to reach the planetary boundaries.

The climate change crisis is very real and while many consider Aotearoa to be a shining example of a ‘clean, green’ country, nearly half our greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture. That’s neither clean nor green. Along with toxic input that often ends up in waterways, precious hapua and wetlands have been drained and carbon-sequestering forests obliterated to make way for intensive farming. Our agriculture industry certainly plays a large part in the economy, but when you look at externalities, the hidden costs that rarely show on a balance sheet, the picture isn’t quite so pretty. 

Research shows that moving to regenerative organic farming offers the greatest opportunity to improve the health of our environment and slow the rate of climate change.

So, what exactly is regenerative organic farming? It’s an expansion of the organics concept, and is a term coined by the Rodale Institute, a non-profit organisation dedicated to pioneering organic farming through research. While most small organic farmers, especially those in biodynamic farming, practice regenerative methods, many larger organic farms, particularly those owned by Big Food, don’t focus on building soil health and some allow unsustainable practices in aspects of their operation. 

The key to regenerative farming is understanding, valuing and preserving the relationship between soil and plant health.

In striving to build better soil health and nutrition, regenerative farmers grow healthier plants that are less susceptible to disease and insect attack. Plants grown this way are more resilient and less reliant on pest control. They also deliver a nutritionally superior product  –  healthy soil means healthy plants and healthier animals.

While it literally starts from the ground up and improves the health of our soil, our crops, and our stock, there are also massive benefits to a community’s health and the health of farmers themselves, many of whom are currently suffering from high rates of depression as well as cancer and other health issues caused by the constant exposure to toxic chemicals.

In a global export market prone to wild swings that are only bound to become more pronounced as the effects of climate change take hold, reliance on commodities alone is hugely risky and even our biggest agricultural exporters agree that diversification and expansion of the ‘value added products’ is vital to the long-term success of the sector. Certified organic products attract a premium price, and similar could be said for regenerative organic, but without standards and certification, premiums don’t exist.

Healthy soil is key to growing healthy food. Teaching farmers how to nurture the soil and helping them transition to a farming system that puts soil at the centre of farming is going to be critical for the ability of future generations of humans to grow food.

There’s also very clear evidence that moving towards regenerative organic farming is the most successful way to sequester carbon, holding it in the ground where it’s an important element in the fascinating life cycle of soil. Anecdotal evidence of New Zealand farmers ditching the industrial-chemical approach, such as that told of Linnburn Station in the Maniototo in a recent episode of Country Calendar generate much interest from farmers, but without a clear pathway towards standardisation and certification, supported by the organics movement and the government, farmers will be inclined to stick to the status quo. A staged approach where regenerative organic methods are incentivised, both locally and in our export markets, will drive investment and financial success along with the myriad of environmental, social and health benefits. 

In New Zealand the organics movement is perfectly placed to provide the framework for best practice regenerative agriculture. With years of experience in developing, monitoring and enforcing the high standards the public have come to expect, consumers can be confident that the certified organic products they buy are good for the planet and the people who’ll consume them. A regenerative framework also provides farmers with a clear pathway as they transition to a more natural way of farming and Organics Aotearoa New Zealand (OANZ) are keen to see more farmers inspired to work with the power of nature. New Zealand businesses focussed on organics, such as my own Bread & Butter Bakery, are searching for agricultural products that could come from New Zealand, but often need to be imported, because of the lack of support and infrastructure for a diversified sustainable agricultural sector within our borders.  In previous posts on this blog (‘What on Earth is Certified Sustainable?’, ‘Bread & Butter Bakery is changing flour‘ and ‘Finally Organic Wheat Flour from New Zealand‘) I have written about the about the difficulty in sourcing organic or regenerative flour from New Zealand and although we are now using some organic wheat flour, we are still not able to use it in all our products due to the lack of milling infrastructure and the simple fact that there isn’t enough grown, even for our modest operation. This lack of diversification of New Zealand’s agricultural sector is short sighted and as we allow the plundering New Zealand’s natural resources while large parts of our population don’t have access to healthy affordable food.

It’s essential to support farmers to transition to more sustainable ways of farming more diverse crops, the public and the government need to start figuring out how.

We can diversify and add value to the food, fibre and timber we produce, allowing us to reduce ruminant livestock numbers, while taking advantage of the global market growth in environmentally sustainable products and plant-based foods. We can build a new identity as a leader in environmental protection and ethical food production for ourselves and others. We can build a more resilient agriculture sector, able to weather the oncoming environmental and market storms of the 21st century. The result of the election shows that a majority of New Zealanders value kindness and the wellbeing of the entire community, now let’s include our non-human environment and cohabitants of this planet too and show the rest of the world how to create a prosperous and sustainable future for generations to come.

Further reading

“Farming change is the key to environmental recovery”

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