Arguments about regenerative agriculture illustrate the challenges of creating informed debate. More generally, democracies depend on voters understanding complex issues
The overarching title to this article, that regenerative agriculture is not redundant but can be misguided, contrasts with a recent Newshub article stating that “regenerative agriculture is a largely redundant concept for New Zealand” and hence “largely superfluous”.
According to the title of the Newshub article, “NZ farmers adopted regenerative agriculture years ago”. The supposed source of these claims was a retired university professor called Keith Woodford. That’s me!
The problem is that I don’t believe I have ever used the words ‘redundant’ or ‘superfluous’ in relation to regenerative agriculture. What I do say is that it has to be science-led and not simplistic dogma. Unfortunately, in many cases the dogma is not consistent with the science.
My perspective includes recognition that some key principles of regenerative agriculture have long been embedded in New Zealand agriculture. However, I always try to make explicit that there is still more to do.
So how could this supposed Newshub article have been published? I had not even spoken to a Newshub reporter on the topic.
In the paragraphs below I will work through that saga. The purpose is to highlight the challenges in creating informed debate on important issues. But first, some general comments on how the mainstream media works.
Mainstream media is influenced by a perceived need to present things in black and white. The emphasis is on the sensational, and controversy always helps.
It starts with titles that entice readers. Those titles are chosen by sub-editors, not the authors. For online articles, the term is ‘click-bait’.
Then comes the lead-in paragraph, with riveting and preferably controversial statements. This lead-in is not the place for anything nuanced. Sub-editors also get involved there.
Readers often forget that a key reason for articles is to lead readers towards the advertisements. It is the advertisements, not the articles, that provide the profits to media owners.
Here in New Zealand, at various times I have been a regular contributor to two of the mainstream media. But I moved away to niche providers. In both cases I was dissatisfied with both titles and editorial changes. I was getting flack for things that were not my own. I walked away.
Another danger with mainstream media can be prior perspectives of owners who then appoint editors who share their perspectives. To borrow and adapt from an 1837 Andrew Lang quote, prior perspectives can lead to positions that resemble how a drunken man uses a lamp post, for support rather than illumination.
So now back to the trail of the Newshub article.
It started when a RadioNZ reporter approached me for an interview. That was in response to an article I had written for niche providers where my own title was “Agriculture will change but pastoral agriculture will survive and prosper”. I had made mention therein of both regenerative agriculture and organic agriculture and the RadioNZ reporter wanted to tease out more.
I have done many such interviews on many topics. When interviews are pre-recorded, I am always nervous as to the sound-bites that will be played. Typically, recorded interviews are between five and ten minutes, sometimes longer. It is easy for sound-bites to be taken out of context. At the end of this particular interview I said to the reporter that I was trusting him not to take comments out of context.
Given a choice, I prefer to do radio interviews live. That way I know that I can only blame myself if it does not come across quite right. In years gone by, I have given live interviews for many RadioNZ programmes such as Checkpoint and it was always fun with sharp interviewers like Mary Wilson. Similarly, on occasions I do non-edited radio interviews for programmes such as The Country with Jamie Mackay. But with RadioNZ rural broadcasts, as with most mainstream TV interviews, the format is to pre-record and editors then use sound-bites.
In this case, I did not hear the interview when it was played, but my wife heard it while driving. The key message she received was the importance of getting some science into regenerative agriculture. That was something that I had indeed emphasised in the interview. I had also emphasised the importance of recognising some of the challenges of regenerative agriculture.
About ten days later I became aware of the Newshub article when my wife read out to me a Google alert. My first reaction was ‘who is saying such provocative unbalanced things? My wife replied that it was me! I admit to being more than a little angry. That was not what I had said.
I then inquired with RadioNZ to fill in the pieces of the trail.
I then learned that RadioNZ reporters feel pressure to work with multimedia. That can include writing additional articles that go beyond what is aired on radio itself by adding their own interpretations. First, these go on the RadioNZ website. From there they can go to Newshub and elsewhere under a shared-material arrangement.
In this case, the reporter, having written his own interpretation of my perspective, approached another person to provide a counter perspective. With the strawman having been set up, it was easy for the other person to knock the strawman down. But did that actually provide evidence-based insights? I don’t think so. Rather, it was just noise with two people apparently hurling negatives from the edges.
Fifty years ago, with the world population less than half current numbers but growing at two percent each year, it seemed inevitable to many that we were on a journey to global starvation. The reality is that available food has increased faster than the population increase. That is because of science and new technologies.
As for the next fifty years, they will bring a new set of challenges. There are indeed limits to growth. There is an old saying that only economists and madmen believe exponential growth can go on forever. Global population growth has slowed but is still at about one percent each year. New Zealand, with high immigration, has been exceeding that level.
Although science is needed to underpin new developments in agricultural systems, conventional wisdom as to scientific fact can also be wrong. There is a saying often recited to first year medical students, particularly in the USA where medicine is a postgraduate course, that ‘half of what you are going to be taught is wrong; unfortunately, we don’t know which half it is”. I reckon I have spent much of the last 20 years fighting against so-called settled science, with that term often used to shut-down genuine science inquiry.
Identifying problems is easier than finding solutions. One issue for which I have no clear answer is how in a democracy we can communicate key science-based issues to voters who want to see things in simplistic terms. Democracies depend on informed voters.
Although I have no easy solutions, I would like to see more high-school students graduating with better understandings of bio-physical systems. It has to be fundamental to any education. I would also like to see greater distinction made between facts and theories.
Linked to this, if we are to find a path through the challenges, then the media have special responsibilities to not create controversy by feeding the lowest common denominator. That includes not assigning words to authors and interviewees that they did not use.