The Future of Farming: Exploring Regenerative Agricultural Models at New Frontiers

"Look after the land, the land will look after you"

It was a startlingly simple notion put forth by Tumanako Wereta, Chairman of the Tuaropaki Trust, that summed up the day’s discussions in a nutshell.

Day 1 of New Frontiers examined the challenges and opportunities for the agricultural sector in New Zealand and beyond, and explored what the future of farming could be. Our discussion on AgTech encompassed the interrelated topics of agriculture, permaculture, nutrition, technology, conservation of biodiversity, dietary philosophy, climate change adaptation, and other areas of exploration that will be crucial elements to consider in re-imagining tomorrow’s version of food production. The diverse range of views and sector representation in the New Frontiers “home dome” were an apt allegory for the approach that will be required to solve our planet’s food crisis: Everyone is required. No one has all the answers.

The tone of cooperation and collective problem-solving was well set by the opening remarks from Mark Gilbert, the U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand; Celia Wade-Brown, Mayor of Wellington; Wayne Guppy, Mayor of Upper Hutt; and Mohi Waihi, local kaumātua from Orongomai Marae. Ambassador Gilbert was emphatic that New Zealand is uniquely positioned to take our agricultural innovation global, and that they best way forward is for communities to work together collectively, on a local, regional, countrywide and global scale.

New Zealand is no stranger to innovation… New Zealand is a respected major player on the world stage
— Mark Gilbert, U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand

New Zealand is, at our core, an agricultural nation. We have embraced an innovative attitude, and have achieved much of which to be proud. Our dairy products are sough after by the lucrative Chinese market, while New Zealand lamb fills Tesco supermarkets in the UK, and our Icebreaker wool products are in demand worldwide. Radiata pine trees cover hillsides all over the country, growing faster here than they do in their native Californian homeland.

And yet, at what cost? The rapid expansion of dairy farming in the last few decades has rendered many of our lowland rivers too polluted to swim in, we are losing topsoil off hill country and consecutive generations of plantation forestry have exhausted soil nutrients in some areas.

A new model is needed, one that addresses all the moving parts of our agricultural system. In an increasingly complex world, there are no cure-alls; there is no one solution. We need to humbly step back, and look at things holistically.


The Global Agricultural Crisis

Few will deny that our planet is in the midst of an ecological crisis. Four of the nine planetary boundaries outlined by the Stockholm Resilience Centre have been crossed already. We have now entered a time of uncertainty where scientists cannot say for sure whether the globe will be a hospitable place to live for humans, even within in a few decades time. As Kenny Ausubel, co-founder of Bioneers put it:

We have been like a rockstar trashing a hotel room up until now. Now it’s the morning after, and if we don’t change, we are going to get voted off the island
— Kenny Ausubel, Co-Founder of Bioneers

Yet there is light, in the form of an ancient wisdom that comes from nature herself. Ecological systems have evolved in a complex matrix of countless overlapping parts, each nurturing the others. Each element plays a role to ensure complete ecosystem health.

In humankind’s quest to dominate nature, we have hacked the system to value only some of the overlapping parts, and in doing so have dictated a monocultural, industrial agriculture. While it has worked for a while, with a primary focus of just meeting humanity's immediate needs, the unintended consequences on the entire ecosystem are becoming increasingly clear.

Inefficiencies in agricultural water use have exacerbated droughts. We are seeing the decline of bee populations, due in part to the use of GMOs. Half the topsoil on the planet has been lost to oceans and waterways in the last 150 years. We have reached a point where we can no longer afford to continue harming our environment and biosphere. We risk not only irreversible damage to our planet, but also our own demise. The time has come to evolve our agricultural practices.

As the problems are becoming clear, so too are the solutions. At the core of most efforts of ‘alternative agriculture’ is a movement towards permaculture or regenerative agriculture. These methods of food production mean taking a systems approach; taking into account which elements of farm or garden design will maximise use of energy, look after the whole system and provide a good output.

These are not just the dreams of a few out-there individuals. A shift in global consciousness is occurring and these ideas are entering the mainstream. From Forbes heralding biomimicry as a better solution than genetic engineering, to Prince Charles stating that city level policy to encourage healthy local food systems "could scarcely be more important", and economic philosopher Charles Eisenstein writing about regenerative agriculture in The Guardian.

We are in the thick of a global decentralised revolution, with millions of people around the world embracing nature’s ancient wisdom and focusing, in their own way, on the solutions rather than the problems. Schools are teaching children the joy of growing their own vegetables and once-industrial cities like Detroit are turning vacant lots into community gardens, while stoic farmers are quietly incorporating nature into their methods and young urban couples are moving out to the countryside to tend to the land. It is more widespread than we may think - individuals and organisations are synthesising their efforts towards a solutions-based culture, that is starting to gain traction and have great influence. Together, layers upon layers of holistic approaches on top of each other, can add up to massive world changes.

Why do we tip the balance of the Earth’s delicate systems with yet more destruction, even though we know in our heart of hearts that in doing so we will most likely risk bringing everything down around us?
— HRH Prince Charles

A Golden Opportunity For New Zealand

In New Zealand, a shift towards regenerative agriculture means taking a look how we currently use our land, and asking ourselves some hard questions.

How are we meeting our current needs, and the needs of the markets we serve? How are we stewarding this land, one of the last places on Earth to be discovered by humankind? How are we looking after the biodiversity of an ecosystem that evolved without any mammalian predators? What sort of food will we need to grow in the future to nurture a healthy population? Will our current methods of farming ensure that the soil, the water and the air will be fit for future generations to grow food? To what extent will new technologies be useful, and in which cases do they become a distraction from the core issues at hand?  

In a time when food security, climate change, and sustainability are on top of the agenda for much of the global community, New Zealand’s foundation in agriculture, wealth in indigenous wisdom, and openness to technological progress put it at the forefront of an agricultural evolution.

The Economics Of Regenerative Agriculture: Adding Value To Produce Premium Products

New Zealand has traditionally been a top primary producer of raw commodities such as wool, logs, milk powder, beef and lamb. Yet with much of our agricultural land at capacity, reliance on our historical linear agricultural practices puts the Kiwi brand at risk. If we are to achieve the New Zealand Government’s goal of doubling the value of our primary sector exports by 2025, then we need to add value to commodities to produce premium products. A shift towards value-added products in New Zealand will allow farmers the breathing space to try new things, to innovate and experiment, without being held captive to fluctuating global commodity prices. 

As the populations of some of our key trading partners such as China increase in affluence, there is a growing demand from consumers for transparency around sustainable food production and food safety. This signals a large market for food that can be demonstrated to be grown in healthy, sustainable and ethical ways, with such products often commanding a premium price. 

My vision for 2025 is that we’ll be a world leader in producing premium, value-added products that are in huge demand around the world
— Hon. Nathan Guy, Minister for Primary Industries

Kiwis are already ahead of the curve when it comes to innovative thinking. The Government currently invests around NZ$400 million a year into R&D in the primary sector, including from Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Callaghan Innovation, and crown research institutes like AgResearch

There are tremendous opportunities to add value to our commodities by marrying two of our biggest export industries - agriculture and technology. Already, our AgTech sector exports are worth NZ$1.2 billion annually, so we have a good grounding from which to work. Our small population, relatively permissive policies and abundant space make for an ideal environment to test and incubate new models. The use of farm management software is already reasonably widespread in New Zealand, and we are beginning to see robotic dairy sheds and the use of drones to patrol vineyards. With wide open skies above and a regulatory environment open to experimentation, New Zealand is a perfect place to incubate and further develop world-leading drone technology to be a valuable aid to the agricultural sector.  

Yet premium products are not only to be achieved through the adoption of new technologies. The well-respected Rodale Institute recently published the findings of a 30-year study on organic vs conventional agriculture. The findings showed that yields from organically fertilised farms matched those of conventionally fertilised farms, and in drought years, exceeded them. Other studies have shown that soil carbon sequestration and other regenerative farming methods can produce significantly higher yields. With increased droughts on the rise due to the effects of climate change, organic and regenerative forms of agriculture will become an important insurance policy.

Scott Nolan of the Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm Founders Fund, discussed how New Zealand might measure the value of premium agricultural products. Referencing Google’s concept of 10x returns, a popular measure of success within the startup community, Scott noted that in agriculture, return on investment often goes beyond monetary. Variances in crop yields, nutritional value and resource inputs can also be measured. Viewed through a holistic lens, the benefits to New Zealand of regenerative agriculture may come in the form of reduced healthcare costs, improved productivity of workers, top quality produce that commands a premium price, and reduced expenditure for the mitigation of unintended environmental effects.

Kenny Ausubel, Co-Founder of Bioneers

Kenny Ausubel, Co-Founder of Bioneers


The Ecology Of Regenerative Agriculture: Ground Fertile For Incubation

Geographically speaking, New Zealand is very diverse. While we generally have a temperate climate, the land is subject to a range of microclimates spanning from sub-tropical zones in the north, to arid high country in central Otago and the lush wet rain forests of the West Coast. These distinct zones, combined with our small population and Western markets make the country a fertile incubation and testing ground for regenerative methods of agriculture.

Towards the end of the day, we had a panel discussion with Gary and Emily Williams of Waterscape, and Kay Baxter and Bob Corker of the Koanga Institute, two organisations who are conducting research, teaching courses and demonstrating the benefits of permaculture in New Zealand. A wealth of knowledge on regenerative farming systems, they provided a timely reminder that often the answers can be found by getting back to simplicity. Gary Williams stressed the importance of learning from nature as you go, stating that “Real teaching is done by experience first, theory second."

One of the participants pointed out that whole-systems thinking isn’t new - it’s the approach that indigenous people all over the world have recognised and respected as the way things should be done. Just north of Taupo, the Tuaropaki Trust have established a shining example of whole-systems thinking, that showcases integrated models of agriculture, horticulture, communications and energy generation. The Trust are stewards of over 10,000 acres of land which came to be held in one title, after 297 Māori landowners agreed to amalgamate their lands for joint management in 1952. In a model that provides a viable, working alternative to western property ownership, there are now 2250 owners and over 7,000 beneficiaries of the land, which can never be sold, but only passed down to descendants. Upon the land, inputs and outputs flow back and forth between a large dairy farm, a milk factory, a state-of-the-art gourmet food glasshouse, a large-scale vermicast composting plant, a geothermal energy plant and telecommunications systems. These interconnected food and energy production elements promote both ecological and financial efficiency.

The trick to walking on water is knowing where the rocks are
— Tumanako Wereta, Chairman of Tuaropaki Trust

The positive environmental benefits of regenerative agriculture can extend beyond local regions. Kenny Ausubel referenced another recent study from the Rodale Institute, highlighting the benefits for carbon sequestration. In two trials, one in the tropics and one in the temperate regions, regenerative, organic farming was shown to sequester more than 100% of the carbon that is in the atmosphere. Imagine if the globe was covered in farms using regenerative agriculture methods? We could solve the climate crisis as well as the food one.

Joshua Fouts, Executive Director of Bioneers used a fantastic analogy of permaculture ecosystems as a coral reef - all parts are elements of the same living, breathing organism. The same analogy can be applied to our interconnected societal structures, and the connections between our bodies, food and health.


The Health Of Regenerative Agriculture: Growing What Our Bodies Need

One of the common themes that we hear about within discussions of the future of agriculture and food production is the need to feed a rapidly expanding global population. The dominant story is that we will need to produce 70% more food by 2050 to feed 9 billion hungry mouths.

Christiana Wyly of the Food Choice Taskforce challenged these notions in her talk on the future of food. She suggested that population growth is a red herring, and that changing diets are the real problem. We have more people eating foods that are more resource intensive. As the developing world gains affluence, meat consumption is on the rise.

What is required is a new story about food: a story in which food is produced sustainably, equitably and adequately. As much as our ecological systems need to change, we need an accompanying social change; a shift in mindset. We need to redefine abundance to be all encompassing of the good health of our bodies, our minds, the soil, the water, the air and of our global neighbours. A shift in governance of the mechanisms around food production will also be required, as recognised in the FAO’s five principles of sustainable agriculture.

While many indigenous cultures recognise food as a form of medicine, in the western world there has been a growing disconnect between what we put into our bodies for energy, and what we put it in for fixing the side-effects of that energy. What kinds of produce can we grow that will nurture a holistic approach to health and food? In his book of the same name, Michael Pollan delivers a simple seven word guideline on what should go into your body for nourishment: 

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.
— Michael Pollan

For many people, meat is the final social and cultural taboo of dietary discussion. It is also the elephant in the room.

Industrial-scale meat production pushes against every one of the Stockholm planetary boundaries. It takes around 15,000 litres of water to raise a kilogram of beef, while a UN report from 2006 shows that animal agriculture produces more greenhouse gases than all global transportation systems combined. A recent Chatham House report on the climate change impacts of the meat and dairy sectors, indicates that even with ambitious supply-side action to reduce the emissions intensity of livestock production, rising global demand for meat and dairy produce means emissions will continue to rise. It is unlikely that global temperature rises can be kept below the crucial two-degrees-Celsius threshold, without a shift in global meat and dairy consumption. As James Cameron, director of Avatar put it:

[Switching to a plant-based diet] was the first thing that actually gave me hope, about rescuing the biosphere and preventing runaway climate change
— James Cameron, Director of Avatar


And what of a balanced, healthy diet? There is much evidence now to link our over-consumption of meat with health issues such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancers. Just this week the New York Times published a piece exploring the Myth of High Protein Diets relating to health. Often the problem is not so much that we eat meat, but the amount of meat that is consumed in a typical Western diet.

Alternative protein sources are on the rise. Rather than large-scale industrial meat production, Brian Monahan held up aquaponics as a closed loop system that could provide a fish protein source, while naturally fertilising fruits and vegetables and filtering water. Looking to plants, only 8% of the world’s plant proteins have been explored for human consumption, and the variety of fruits and vegetables that we grow have been drastically reduced in the past century. In just 80 years from 1903 to 1983, the National Center for Genetic Resource Preservation reports that we have lost 93% of the variety in our food seeds. When we consider that many seeds were championed for their adaptivity to monocultural production and resistance to pesticides, one has to ask, what nutritional value has been lost?

Here in New Zealand, Kay Baxter spoke passionately of the uncertain future of New Zealand’s largest collection of heritage seeds. The Koanga Institute has over 800 varieties of heirloom vegetable seeds and over 400 fruit and berry seeds, which have only been saved due to the voluntary efforts of a few dedicated individuals over the last thirty years. The Institute is now looking to pass over stewardship of the collection to a next generation who care about the future of our food.

Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food
— Hippocrates


How Can We Make The Transition To Regenerative Agriculture?

None of this is all that new. Regenerative agriculture is a return to the methods of growing food that humans have employed for thousands of years. As Gary Williams pointed out, the industrial agricultural system is a blip in human history. It is only there because of a flush of cheap energy - one that we all recognise is coming to an end.

One of the most important lessons that came out of New Frontiers was that in the face of complexity, working together with diverse interests is essential to arrive at good solutions. Several of the speakers somewhat controversially mentioned the need to find common ground with the large ag-corps like Monsanto and Unilever, and to try to work with them. There is nothing to be gained from demonising these giants, and we have no time for adversarial tactics. As Kenny Ausubel put it, “We are beyond urgency, it’s emergency from here on out”.

Kenny’s wife and co-founder at Bioneers, Nina Simons, considers that we have to make it sexy to farm again. The biggest challenge is connecting young people with land that they feel they can have a stake in. As we are moving away from the model of intergenerational farming, where the land was traditionally passed down to the eldest son, we are entering a new era of agricultural entrepreneurship - one that combines new technology with ancient wisdom, championed by a new breed of farmer who believes in infinite possibilities.

Environmental sustainability is not a ‘nice to have’ – it’s a ‘must’
— Hon. Nathan Guy, Minister for Primary Industries

With so many planetary crises converging, there is a global awakening to the interconnected nature of human and ecological systems. We have a rare opportunity to change the paradigm of consciousness around food production. A new interest in wholesome food is often the entry point for people to enter other forms of environmentalism. By encouraging people to take an interest in where their food comes from, we have the opportunity to open the doorway for people to get involved in other pressing global issues.   

The move towards decentralised regenerative agriculture is easier than we have been lead to believe. The claim that industrial agriculture is needed to feed the world is based on false assumptions around what we need to eat. Already, 72% of food gets produced by farmers on small farms. Yet, there is no need to move out to the country to grow your own food. Kay Baxter pointed out that you can feed a family of four adequately, and have some to spare, with a 200 square-metre plot. In many cities, community gardens provide land for those without backyards. Or if you really want to understand and connect with where your food comes from, Gary Williams suggests taking a year off your usual work, and going to live and work on a farm.

While all these efforts may feel like drops in the ocean, consider as a final thought, the David Mitchell quote with which Brian Monahan closed his presentation:

What is the ocean, but a multitude of drops?
— David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Kiwi Connect is helping to build a 'living laboratory' farm for experimentation, incubation and testing of innovations towards regenerative agriculture. If you are a visionary wanting to get involved in regenerative agricultural entrepreneurship in New Zealand, we would love to hear from you!

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