Why is conventional agriculture resistant to regenerative production? And why should we care?

Why is conventional agriculture resistant to regenerative production? And why should we care?

Let me just start by rolling a hand grenade under the door. If you want to resist something effectively, do not oppose the narrative directly but find fault with the details. By continually seeking clarification, you appear constructive and on board while maintaining the status quo and then slowly appropriating control of the narrative.

It’s a master class in passive-aggression. There is good reason to be passively aggressive in New Zealand agriculture because it’s built on a paradigm that cannot be sustained without undermining the very basis of its existence.  

Ironically, we can’t agree on what ‘regenerative agriculture’ actually means in New Zealand. It’s ironic because we have ample evidence of what it isn’t. The ‘look-out-the-window’ test provides a stark reminder of what ‘un-regenerative’ agriculture looks like and which farming practices lead to undesirable outcomes: unhealthy soils, degraded ecosystems and freshwater, soil erosion, resistance to herbicides, poor animal and human health, and in New Zealand, we have a well-documented history of this.

So, even by looking at what we don’t want, we should be able to arrive at what we desire for our food and fibre production system and, by extension, human and ecosystem health, and some have even tried.  

Can regenerative be defined?

In 2021, Dr. Gwen Grelet, from Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research tried to define regenerative agriculture funded through the ‘Our land and water’ programme. Dr. Grelet (and her 74 co-authors) determined that ‘regenerative’ could not be defined and was best understood as a ‘mindset’.

So, if you think you are regenerative, then you are. While I support Dr. Grelet’s work and understand the challenges she encountered, the idea of a regenerative mindset unintentionally plays into the hands of those who would seek to undermine regenerative agriculture, namely, those who benefit from an industrialised agricultural food system set up just the way it is.

And who would those interested parties be? A broad-brush group might include:

  • Banks (who finance rural land)
  • Processors (milk and meat companies, etc.)
  • Fertiliser Companies (directly involved in high-input agriculture)
  • Chemical Companies (herbicide and pesticide)
  • Membership based-Producer organisations (who derive fees from members)
  • Supermarkets (the heart of the industrialised food system)
  • Scientists (especially those whose position and research are funded via other interested parties)

These groups and organisations are filled with intelligent people who, by and large, believe in what they are doing and go to work to do a great job. I am not blaming them. In many cases, they are probably not even aware of the system they are unwittingly contributing to and trapped by:

An extractive and damaging industrialised agricultural food and fibre system propped up by excessive chemical inputs, fossil-based energy, and debt, built under the false promise of ‘higher production means greater profits’, all while claiming the noble aim of ‘feeding the world’ through better technology-based solutions.

It is a bold (and controversial) statement, but if you examine each fragment, you may find agreement with it.

In reality, the current conventional system of food and fibre production (and any system) is emergent; outcomes are created as a consequence of the underlying conditions.  These outcomes are the cumulative result of 150 years of small, seemingly unrelated decisions at the farm, country, and international level to address small and seemingly unrelated problems in isolation, e.g. adding nitrogen makes plants grow faster – which it does.  

While this is true in a simple narrow boundary system, in a complex broad boundary ecosystem, there will likely be other consequences, many unknown or unreported. Glyphosate (Round-up) application is a great example of this.   

Simple and complicated systems act as machines to arrive at a desired outcome. They are recipes, which may include how to bake a cake or send a rocket to the moon. There may be a series of steps or many inputs and feedback loops, but overall, the steps are standardised and repeatable, as they would be for how to build the latest iPhone. In complex systems, the relationship between the parts is not linear. They interact with each other as a constantly changing web, the outcomes of which always reflect the underlying conditions.

Modern science, on the other hand, is reductionist. It tries to pull things apart to study a limited number of parts in isolation, control for outcomes and then put the pieces back together as a model to reflect how we think things work.

The problem: we have applied complicated problem-solving techniques to complex issues, and anything we don’t like or don’t know, we either exclude from the model or make assumptions. I am not throwing science ‘under the bus’. On the contrary, my original qualifications are in science. But the idea of using complicated problem-solving to control the outcomes we desire is symptomatic of the misapplication of machine-based thinking to a complex system we cannot hope to understand in this way, let alone control. And this is how we got to where we are today.

I believe Dr Grelet and others were half right. They were right in that regenerative cannot be defined empirically and quantitatively, as is the desire of the passive-aggressive who look like they are helping but are actually intentionally getting in the way.

They were wrong in that rather than just a mindset, regenerative could best be described as the potential that can be achieved through the implementation of practices guided by a series of simple regenerative principles. In other words, regeneration is a design framework, not just a mindset.

The regenerative principles

  1. Increase diversity
  2. Reduce inputs
  3. Maintain a growing root in the soil
  4. Reduce bare ground
  5. Reduce disturbance
  6. Utilise animal impact

Regenerative principles are not a prescriptive recipe but a lens through which management decisions can be made. As such, they are agnostic to practice.

There are a handful of verified regenerative ‘certifications’ accepted by many large global food and fibre brands, the dominant of which is the Savory Institute’s Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV), which verifies that land is regenerating under management. Therefore, a product derived from that land qualifies to enter an often high-value supply chain bound for a conscious consumer. 

But how do we climb back down the ladder of a system that appears to be leaning against the wrong wall?

There are many who have benefited extraordinarily from the current system, but, as I have said, there are many more that are either unwittingly or unwillingly trapped in it.

Generally, people do not like bad news, unless they are in the media – “if it bleeds, it leads”! Despite this, there is a fair bit of bad news around. New Zealand has a big problem. The state of our environment, social wellbeing, business, health, and education are in steep decline by any measure. Despite the efforts of many principled and hard-working people, we are running out of runway for change as a country.

The fervour-de-jour of investment in tech-based solutions again tries to control for outcomes. An optimist would say this is misguided (at best), a pessimist would say this creates false idols and an opportunity for the few to profit while effectively maintaining business as usual; think greenwashing.

So, I believe the question we need to turn our collective attention to is ‘how do we transition to a system that creates the conditions for health as emergent outcomes in our agricultural, natural, social, business, and education environment?’…and do this from the perspective of related systems, not disconnected silos. Failure to address this will likely result in the next swath of emergent outcomes piling up on the wreckage of the last.

This is not a Disney movie. There is no ‘happily-ever-after’ unless we demand a system change; not a regime change, but a sensible conversation about a change in the conditions we are creating in this country to deliver the kind of future worth living into.

To massacre a quote from the original ‘Top Gun’ movie; generations of well-meaning but misguided leadership have ‘written cheques (created conditions) our future cannot cash’.   

Mike GreenMarch 7, 20240

Mike Green

After graduating from Waikato University with a master’s degree in Earth Sciences and Biology, Mike Green headed off overseas to travel, teach environmental science, and work on environmental projects in Kenya and Zimbabwe. Mike now combines his science background, business experience, and understanding of permaculture and regenerative systems to help grow and develop Ata Regenerative to enable the regenerative transition of New Zealand agriculture.