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Regen ag: does the science stack up for New Zealand?

Regenerative agriculture (regen ag), a term first coined in the 1970s, applies an adaptive ecological approach to agricultural landscape management, with a focus on ecosystem health. However, little research has been done to show whether, or how, regen ag delivers on claimed environmental, economic or social benefits, particularly in a New Zealand context.
Dr Kara Allen collecting topsoil samples

Dr Kara Allen collecting topsoil samples

To address this knowledge gap, soil ecologist Dr Gwen Grelet is leading a pilot project funded through MBIE’s Strategic Science Investment Fund and MPI, baselining the ecosystem performance of conventionally managed and regeneratively run farms in New Zealand, across roughly 20 indicators.

The project includes both dairy and drystock pastoral farms in the south of New Zealand. Here, flooding and cold temperatures create substantial challenges, especially for winter feeding, which is one of the motivations for transitioning to regenerative management.

The indicators include visual soil assessments, soil moisture and water infiltration, aggregate stability (how well the soil holds together), soil carbon and nitrogen stocks to a depth of 1 metre, and various indicators of ecosystem biodiversity, including plants, insects, soil invertebrates, and soil microbes. Some farms have also agreed to participate in an assessment of economic metrics (profitability and business resilience). The pilot is a collaboration between Manaaki Whenua scientists and external collaborators such as Quorum Sense, BakerAg, 5th Business Agri, Plant & Food Research, and AgResearch.

A linked project, funded by Our Land & Water National Science Challenge, SSIF and the NEXT Foundation, in partnership with MPI, is a survey of New Zealand farmers, industry, government, and scientists. It will uncover any questions they have about regenerative agriculture, identify the main principles and objectives of regenerative farming systems in New Zealand (dairy, drystock, arable and viticulture/horticulture), and show how these differ from similar systems overseas. The survey work will also develop a framework for building a scientific evidence base specific to regenerative agriculture in New Zealand across all high-priority environmental, economic, and social outcomes, so that future research can quickly fill the evidence gaps.

The work is particularly timely given global and national uncertainties over the economic effects of Covid-19, and the need to enhance New Zealand’s agricultural resilience in global marketplaces increasingly dominated by environmentally and ethically minded consumers.

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