Is regenerative agriculture the real deal

Regenerative agriculture is in vogue as a concept but what does it really mean?

I often get asked my opinion about regenerative agriculture.  My standard rejoinder is to ask what does the questioner mean by ‘regenerative agriculture’? That typically gets a response that it is somewhat of a mystery to them, but it is a term they keep hearing, and supposedly it is the way we need to act to save the planet.  My next rejoinder is that I too am struggling to know what it means.

Then some two weeks ago I was asked to join a focus group for a research project looking into what regenerative agriculture means specifically in the New Zealand context. The project has considerable backing, including from the Government-funded ‘Our Land & Water National Science Challenge’.

I was unable to participate in the focus group on account of another commitment. But it did make me think it was time for me to do my own research and find out what the term actually stood for.

Some ferreting around led me to a paper  by Dr Charles Merfield, widely known as ‘Merf’, who is well known in organic agriculture and sustainable farming circles in New Zealand and beyond. I thought if anyone knows what it means then it will be Merf.

I quickly found that Merf has also found it challenging to get a clear definition of regenerative agriculture. Aha, I said, so it is not only me who is struggling.

Merf quoted from a paper published by Terra Genesis International (TGA), who are promoting the concept. The  TGA paper says at the outset “that Regenerative Agriculture cannot be defined.” Apparently, this is because regenerative agriculture is an evolving concept and it is expected that it will continue to evolve.

Both from Merf’s paper and the TTGA paper I quickly learned that, in contrast to organic agriculture which has prescribed rules, regenerative agriculture has no specific rules. That is why it can mean different things to different people. However, one point of agreement seems to be that ‘regenerative agriculture’ goes beyond ‘sustainable agriculture’ in setting a higher bar.

I then went to Wikipedia to see what it had to say.  One has to be cautious with Wikipedia on matters that are still evolving, but at least it would provide a perspective.

Wikipedia said that regenerative agriculture “is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems. It focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing biodiversity, enhancing ecosystem services, increasing resilience to climate change, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil.”

Some further ferreting around led me to the conclusion that regenerative agriculture is really a value system largely coming from the USA and then spreading out from there.  It is built on a belief that says that we are depleting our soils and we need to do a lot better.

Then it was back to Merf’s paper to see what he had to say about the underlying science. To my initial surprise, Merf said that there was minimal peer-reviewed literature on the topic. His own search using the combined terms ‘regenerative’ and ‘agriculture’ only found two such papers in science journals, whereas a search using the terms ‘resilient’ and ‘agriculture’ produced many thousands.

Instead, almost all of the literature on regenerative farming is in what is called the ‘grey literature’ of reports that are not peer reviewed and also articles in popular non-scientific magazines.   Nevertheless, there are some principles that are generally agreed to.

The four most commonly agreed principles according to Merf are:

  • minimising or eliminating tillage (through no-till);
  • avoiding bare soil / keeping the soil covered at all times with living plants or residues;
  • increasing plant biodiversity (both pasture and crops); and
  • integrating livestock and cropping (mixed /rotational farming).

Another key insight is that many of the promoters of regenerative agriculture do not themselves have a background in science. This makes it particularly challenging to link the value systems to explicit practices that align with the beliefs.

By now I was aware that at least some of the principles of this regenerative agriculture movement have been around for a long time, including back in the 1960s at Lincoln University when I was a student. For example, Professor Walker never allowed us to forget the fundamental importance of clover within the nitrogen cycle on our pastoral lands. Similarly, all of the cropping rotations that we were taught by Jim White, Bruce Ryde and others had an animal phase within them.

Back in those distant times we had neither the tillage machinery nor the weedicides, in particular glyphosate, that would make no-till systems feasible. However, those systems are now very much part of mainstream agriculture.  Glyphosate is currently acceptable to most followers of regenerative agriculture as the lesser evil relative to alternatives.

As for plant diversity, that was always a key part of New Zealand’s pastoral systems until around 20 years ago when it became evident that on dairy farms the combination of ryegrass and nitrogen fertiliser was the way to maximise profits. Currently, there is a modest movement back towards more plant diversity using species such as plantain, although it is not all straight sailing.

Searching a little further, I found that use of compost is another favoured technique for regenerative farming, including importing compost from outside the farm. There is no doubt that compost contains valuable nutrients and can help to increase organic matter in soils. The challenge is that, at regional and national scale, importing compost is not really feasible. Where would it come from?

This leads us back to one of the fundamental aspects of nutrient cycling that underpins sustainable farming systems. Unless human excrement is returned to farms then there will always be a need for non-organic fertilisers.

Clover and other legume species can fix nitrogen from the air with the help of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Other plants can then obtain necessary nitrogen from the nitrogen released by these crops into the soil, although growth is typically less than achieved with fertiliser nitrogen. As for phosphorus, sulphur, potassium and micro nutrients, they have to come from somewhere else, and that means fertiliser.

Digging deeper again, I find that many of the current mainstream scientists are highly frustrated by the regenerative agriculture movement. They find it exasperating to have to deal with people who have political sway but have no understanding of fundamental scientific principles. Indeed, they find it insulting. And so, the scene is set for tribal shouting matches.

So, where do we go from here?

The answer has to be that an ongoing move to higher levels of sustainability has to be supported. We do still have farming practices, particularly in the dairy industry, that are non-sustainable. However, the other side also needs to learn some science and understand something of what is already being achieved and the nature of the constraints.

Ironically, although I would not consider myself part of the regenerative agriculture movement, I do have an involvement with a transformational pasture-based dairy system through incorporation of ‘composting moo-tels’. Dairy systems with composting moo-tels fit very nicely within the regenerative philosophy. It is an example of how we can bring sustainability, cow welfare, human welfare and economics together within a scientific framework. The first step is to get everyone to understand what we are talking about and to dispel uninformed perspectives on both sides that are getting in the way.

About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
This entry was posted in Agribusiness, Composting mootels, Dairy, greenhouse gases, Land and water, Water. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Is regenerative agriculture the real deal

  1. Jan Woodhouse says:

    Hi Keith,
    I enjoy your posts so thanks but could not resist a response to this one. I agree that the science in most cases seems woolly but the approach, I as a Landscape Architect like is that it is a whole-system approach, and I dont just mean soils, that is about reducing harm to our whenua. It seeks to actually improve the health of the land, waterways, the animals that live on it, and people that benefit from it. And this requires farmers to pay close attention to what their farms as a whole and their pastures need in order to function as healthy ecosystems. Of course farmer wellbeing and animal welfare is also part of this but the reading I have done indicates that the outcome is usually positive.

    Jan Woodhouse

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Hi Jan
      I think I remember you from my student days or thereabouts.
      I am definitely not against any of the things that regenerative agriculture aims to do.
      But I am keen that we incorporate science within the lens, recognising that dominant science beliefs can also be incorrect and can be questioned.
      I recall a very famous doctor (I will have to dig in the memory cells to recall who it was) who used to tell his students that ‘half the things we teach you are wrong. The problem is that we don’t know which half it is.’
      Keith W

      • farmerbraun says:

        Mcmeekan and Levy, and the entire output of the Grasslands Division of the DSIR would appear to be the relevant science.
        It’s far from new , but is being rediscovered by pastoralists who don’t know the history.

  2. Glennis Moriarty says:

    Hi Keith
    Two ‘local’ soil scientists who bring much experience and knowledge to this field are Dr Christine Jones and Nicole Masters. I am sure you would enjoy reading material written by either of them.
    Although it is a YouTube link (and I know that is not a great recommendation) I think the following, by Dr Jones, is well worth watching if you have time, as some background.

    And here is some very recent NZ research looking in the same direction.
    “The challenge for future research is to enhance microbiome function by appropriate matching of plant and animal genotypes with the environment to improve the output and environmental sustainability of pastoral agriculture.”
    Attwood GT, Wakelin SA, Leahy SC, Rowe S, Clarke S, Chapman DF, Muirhead R and Jacobs JME (2019) Applications of the Soil, Plant and Rumen Microbiomes in Pastoral Agriculture. Front. Nutr. 6:107. doi: 10.3389/fnut.2019.00107
    Glennis Moriarty

  3. Louise Coats says:

    Hi Keith,
    To add to the list Allan Savory & Ian Mitchell-Innes!
    Louise Coats

  4. fjplugge says:

    Hi Keith. I remember you from Lincoln days and enjoy your blog. I am often reminded of Prof Walker raving over the advantage New Zealand had with its ryegrass and white clover pastures. Recently I have been studying ‘Regenerative Agriculture’ or ‘Soil Regeneration’ as I prefer to call it. I am currently part way through a soil course from Wageningen University to get a European perspective. Here is a link to a US science based article which discusses some of the research and how much we have yet to learn.

    Here is a comment from it: Science appears to support this approach. A recent review of 56 studies published in the journal PLoS One found that soil from farms that didn’t till or use synthetic chemicals and employed practices like cover cropping, biodiversity, and crop rotation contained 32% to 84% more microbial mass (an indicator of healthy soil) than that from conventional farms.

    Now they re studying what this means for the gut biome.

    Kind regards, Frans

  5. David Porter says:

    Thanks Keith. I never had the pleasure of a Professor Walker or Bruce Ryde lecture but listened intently to many from Jim White. His enthusiasm for his subject was infectious!
    I’m glad that I am not the only one who has been having trouble nailing down a definition for regenerative agriculture. Maybe it is my male brain but wooly concepts don’t sit easily with me. I am fully in agreement with the four principles that Merf lists and I don’t know anyone who is serious about sustainability who isn’t. The problem here, as you allude to, is that there are decision makers in Wellington who would like to impose regenerative agriculture on farmers without knowing themselves anything more than a wooly definition. If we don’t follow the science, we will end up being too prescriptive. The Four Pests Campaign, an albeit extreme example, is a good example of a blanket policy being forced upon an ecosystem, even with the best intents.

  6. fjplugge says:

    Here is a brief overview of decades of research in Germany.

  7. Tom Walker says:

    Hi Keith,

    The other person very influential in the regenerative farming movement is Joel Salatin from the U.S.He has been to NZ on speaking tours (interviewed by Kim Hill) and appeared in Michael Moore`s film about food production (Food inc).Salatin promotes values or ethics in food production and has catchy phrases like ”for food to be ethical the chicken has to be able to express it`s chickeness” etc.

    You speaking of my namesake at Lincoln and the importance of clover in NZ pastoral farming reminds me of an article that Brian Hocking wrote in the Dairy Exporter awhile ago stating that we had ”lost the plot” with our lack of clover on NZ Dairy farms…due I guess to the urea/ryegrass mix you mentioned.

    Btw,as a former organic dairy farmer there was no problem sourcing fertilizers that we required,the only really non-sustainable issue in my opinion was weed control…especially cali`s!

    • farmerbraun says:

      Yes it’s true that Californian thistle takes a persistent campaign for success in organic systems , whereas ragwort proved to be easy.
      The tough ones are blackberry, barberry , boxthorn, and broom in my organic system.
      Gorse succumbs to the several insects eventually.

  8. Duncan Mills says:

    As a Lincoln graduate from the late 60s,; after reflecting on that and 30years operating a medium mixed farm in Tasmania, i know realise how limited the simplistic reductionist scientific framework is. Most of the practices encouraged have now shown to be harmful both to the soil, tbe landscape and human health.

    Such a piecemeal approach very substantially left us ill-equipped to appreciate the holistic and dynamic complexity of real world agroecosystems.

    As the agroecosystem declined in inherent capacity whole industries have grown remedy these things and mask the declines.

    The commercial interests of these remedial industries fuel a mindset that discourages critical discussion of root causes and fosters passive acceptance of growing dependency.

    Regenerative land use depends firstly on a respect for the infinite complexity and mystery of life on earth, and the guiding patterns of systems that flourish without intervention.

    Inspired by these, regeneration is metasystemic dialog between this view of whole systems and the tool of reductionist science in guiding the developmrnt of human centric emulation of native ecosystems.

    Reading : Massey Charles;Jones, Christine; Ingham, Elaine; Stiener Rudolph; Bawden, Richard, Holmgren&Mollison

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Interesting to see Richard Bawden’s name among your list. I used to follow what he was doing at Hawkesbury (now UWS I think) and I used him as a PhD examiner for a student of mine about 20 years ago, by which time he had moved to the States. Richard had an advantage over some of his followers and disciples that he himself had a background in the hard sciences to fall back on. Some of his followers and disciples picked up the systems philosophies but lacked the underlying sciences to keep them on the path. Once Richard left Hawkesbury there was no-one with Richard’s force of personality combined with intellect and knowledge to keep the momentum moving forward. And of course he always had his detractors sniping at him.
      I also remember an early and controversial paper for Ag Systems by Richard Bawden – for which I was a referee. Somewhat unsuaully, the editor told me at the outset that he was going to publish it, because it was groundbreaking, but he wanted me as a referee to minimise any flaws therein. So that was a nice job to be given.

    • David Porter says:

      Hi Duncan. There’s a whole lot I agree with in your comment, for instance the industry that has grown around undoing the damage done to soils etc. Witness the recent example of numerous companies now selling bacteria to inoculate the soil after years (or decades) of abuse.
      Where we might disagree, unless I’m misunderstanding you, is that science bears a lot of blame. A scientific publication only states that under a certain set of circumstances something happened. In my limited experience doing research, even I recognised that once you went from the plant growth cabinet to the field, it was sometimes mightily difficult to recreate what happened initially because there were so many more uncontrollable confounding variables that came into play. I think that scientists know that when they publish a paper, they are almost always only inching the understanding of a system forward rather than developing a whole new system. Often, it is the vested interests that you speak of who take the research and apply it much more generally than is warranted.

  9. farmerbraun says:
    The essential feature of all versions of ReAg is rotationally grazed permanent /perennial pasture.
    The real need for this in NZ is in market gardening , where continuous crops are taken.

    • farmerbraun says:

      On the other hand , it appears that market gardening is to be exempted from cleaning up its act , especially in regard to nitrogen leaching.

      • Keith Woodford says:

        Farmer Braun,
        Yes, these regulations and exemptions do seem to be contrary to the scientific evidence. There are some NZ soils that can be cropped continuously for very long periods and these are the soils that tend to be currently used for market gardening. Some of these fertile market gardening soils also leach heaviiy. But some people don’t want to know these things as it runs against the desired narrative.
        Keith W

      • David Porter says:

        Keith is right in his answer, but I think it can be summed up in one word, politics!

  10. sheo Narain Beria says:

    Pl. Go through Padma shree subhash parkar SPNF system in farming, You may get answers to your all questions of your mind .

    On Wed, 29 Jul 2020, 7:37 am Posts from Keith Woodford, wrote:

    > Keith Woodford posted: “Regenerative agriculture is in vogue as a concept > but what does it really mean? I often get asked my opinion about > regenerative agriculture. My standard rejoinder is to ask what does the > questioner mean by ‘regenerative agriculture’? That typically ge” >

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