Nature’s rebound is one of the upsides of the otherwise calamitous Covid-19 crisis. Atmosphere and waters cleared, the land quietened, and birds, fish and animals returned. When we took our foot off the neck of nature, she responded with renewed vigour and resilience. But we gave nature only a temporary reprieve while lockdown lasted.
Speed is another surprise about the virus, in ways frightening and uplifting. It is spreading with astonishing speed through the human population. Harmless to the bats it came from, it is deadly to some people it attacks. Yet, people have responded fast, individually and collectively, magnificently and abysmally. One way or another, humankind is getting through this crisis.
We could choose to ignore these lessons of nature and speed. We could carry on the way we were before the virus struck. If so, nature would respond ever faster to the destructive pressure we humans put on it. Climate catastrophe, species extinction, ecosystem destruction and degradation of air, water and soil would all accelerate with frightening speed. With every species we eliminate, we break one more thread in the web of life.
Or we could choose to apply these lessons to our relationship with the planet. If we did, we would help nature restore the living systems on which human life utterly depends. We could make our towns and cities healthier and more productive, in terms human and natural. Ways to do so include travelling less by relying more on virtual communications and walking, cycling and public transport; by restoring our urban rivers and coastal waters; and by bringing more of nature back into our urban environments to help us feed ourselves and restore our urban ecosystems.
Beyond our towns and cities, we could help nature rebuild its diversity and vitality, resilience and fecundity in all of Aotearoa’s land, waters, atmosphere and oceans. Ways to do so include eradicating predators from our native bush; helping threatened species recover; making infrastructure compatible with natural environments; ensuring tourism and other human activity don’t degrade pristine places; and using natural resources in ways that help renew and regenerate the ecosystems which provide them to us.
An inexorable logic runs through these great ambitions.
We must learn how to work with nature, not against it.
In all we do.
One expression of this is the regenerative economy. This is a radical change from the exploitive economy which has driven human progress through the two centuries of industrialisation to date. The bankruptcy of the exploitive economy is abundantly clear. One measure of its ecological failure is our breaching of some of the nine planetary boundaries defined by Earth systems science. One measure of its economic and social failure is the UN’s Human Development Report. Of all the enormous challenges of creating a regenerative economy, the greatest is learning regenerative ways to use land to grow food. Yet, doing so will have multiple benefits to the planet and people. It is the bedrock on which we can build sustainable human societies.
Regeneration in the ecological sense encapsulates the renewal, restoration and revitalization of our natural systems to ensure we live within our natural planetary boundaries. The drastic social and economic changes currently being wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic are an opportunity for the world to get the balance right at last and pursue a regenerative future grounded in deeper connections between people, food and the land. Nature has called upon us to think differently and to tell a new story.
Our Regenerative Future looks at this opportunity through the lens of regenerative agriculture (regen ag) and highlights the recognition that conventional methods of farming, while efficient at maximising production, are doing a great deal of harm. The project grew out of Pure Advantage’s ongoing interest in the global soil carbon sequestration movement and how it presents an opportunity to spur Aotearoa’s climate change solutions in the medium term. The initiative is also aligned with work being carried out by several Fellows in the Edmund Hillary Fellowship who are focused on the business intersection of regen ag with organic foods, funding, coaching and entrepreneurship.
The following insights into regen ag in Aotearoa have been skilfully investigated and captured by Alina Siegfried, whose ability to connect empathically with those she interviews has resulted in this series of honest and compelling case studies with farmers, scientists and business sector experts who have adopted regenerative practices. In a list that is by no means exhaustive, the subjects cover: what's driving the movement, through to whole system science and soil health; how regen ag approaches can ultimately reduce cost and environmental harm; how models being developed can provide an investment for impact; the economics of land use; improving the journey of organic foods to market; the role of community; and farmer mental health.
Adopting regen ag is about doing what’s right for the land and farming with less harm; reducing or eliminating inputs from synthetic additives while enhancing the cycles of nature. Regen ag is not a one-size-fits-all approach, though certain themes are shared across agricultural contexts. In the case studies presented here, farmers have realized traditional ways weren’t working for them and that they no longer wanted to continue with the status quo. Although faced with the uncertainty associated with funding the transition to regenerative agriculture, these farmers have drawn upon the growing body of science and anecdotal evidence to set about researching and successfully making changes to establish farming systems that are more holistic and more biologically driven.
An exciting opportunity exists for NZ’s ag sector to pursue a regenerative approach that will ensure environmental sustainability while also developing a more resilient farming economy to meet consumer demands/trends, and to ambitiously scale this approach to the point we can achieve significant positive change across many climate, economic and social indicators.
Aotearoa New Zealand has a reputation as a progressive, innovative, caring and well-governed country, and we can further enhance this through a quick, science-led transition to environmentally sustainable agriculture. The timing for a global shift to carbon farming through the lens of regen ag is urgent, and NZ is ready for this major economic opportunity. In pivoting this way, NZ can look after our primary industries and show to the world it is still the best place to produce nutrient-dense, grass-fed food and fibre.
Overall, Pure Advantage’s aim is to foster change for good, to enable these regen ag ideas and principles to transmit between farmers, and to engage all sectors of society to have maximum impact. We hope this work is a positive antidote and one that provides hope and opportunity - after all, farmers are some of our most essential workers. The sector must continue to focus on long-term sustainability and resilience in terms of production and the environment - biodiversity, soils, carbon, water - and only then can NZ build a resilient agricultural system to weather future storms.
Thank you to all those who have contributed to this series. It is my hope it can help many more Kiwi farmers realise that regen ag is a wonderful opportunity for them to embrace.
In many ways, New Zealand’s agricultural sector has been leading the world. Blessed with a temperate climate, abundant freshwater, and year-round pasture, we have used sophisticated modelling and technology to create an efficient system of inputs and outputs that maximise production. This hacking of nature has allowed our ag sector to economically thrive, yet it has come at a cost to our environment, our waterways, farmer mental health, and to the financial resilience of our rural communities many of which are steeped in debt.
Aotearoa New Zealand cannot rely on this model forever. As we enter a significant global economic downturn, more than ever we need a model of agriculture that reflects economic, social, and environmental resilience; one that works with nature, rather than seeking to modify and dominate it. As we begin to rebuild our post pandemic economy, regenerative agriculture presents an opportunity for NZ to identify and scale the parts of farming that are serving us well, and to question those which are in need of a return to the grassroots.
Our Regenerative Future is intended to connect, educate and influence NZ's community of land stewards. Please join me in a deep dive into some case studies of those who are leading at the edge and charting a new course for regenerative agriculture.
Pure Advantage functions as both a generator and communicator of knowledge, undertaking and supporting a variety of green growth-focused research activities and outputs. Through this work, we seek to disseminate cutting-edge theory and practice that will transform how New Zealanders understand and manage the relationship between the environment and the economy.
We advocate for economic models that generate both profitability and positive social and environmental outcomes. In promoting these models we seek to uphold the ethical imperatives of impact investment while also dispelling any lingering misconceptions around wealth creation and environmental protection being contradictory goals.