Agriculture minsters and spokespeople for Labour, National, The Greens, NZ First and the Māori Party (Photo: Tina Tiller)

Organics, regenerative agriculture and the political will to grow the movement

Several parties are promoting policies that aim to develop New Zealand’s regenerative agriculture and organics sectors. Michael Andrew asks the experts what it could mean for the environment, the economy and New Zealand’s participation in a burgeoning global market.

Under the tangled canopy of green schools, fiscal holes, party leaks and other pre-election controversies, it can often be hard to notice the new shoots of fresh policy rising up for a patch of sunlight. Sometimes they’re radical, espoused by a single party and quietly promising a fundamental yet desperately-needed change in some niche part of society.

What’s unique about the range of organics and regenerative farming policies is that, although they could offer radical transformation of New Zealand’s agriculture industry, you’ll find them mentioned in no less than six parties’ pre-election statements.

The Greens, TOP, National, Labour, the Māori Party and NZ First all have at least one policy that proposes development in the area, ranging from National’s promise to re-introduce the Organics Products Bill, to New Zealand First’s pledge to support research into regenerative farming to the Green’s huge $300m fund to shift farmers to regenerative practices and place a levy on chemical fertilisers.

The political will is there, and the policies look good on paper. But what exactly is the goal? First it’s necessary to clarify what regenerative and organic farming actually mean. Both are from the same school of thought, and are often conflated. Yet although they overlap, they’re different concepts, each with their own unique opportunities and proponents.

Organic products, the type you see on some supermarket shelves, are goods that have been produced without the use of chemicals, preservatives, synthetic fertilisers, pesticides or hormones, genetically modified seeds or other additives. Across the world the products are certified to specific standards, guaranteeing consumers that they’re buying and eating a genuine organic product.

The ubiquitous USDA organic seal found on US organic products (Photo: The Counter)

Regenerative agriculture on the other hand is a broad philosophy of sustainable farming that integrates organic production along with soil health, animal welfare, carbon sequestration, fair labour, and social outcomes using a range of proven and experimental techniques.

Both are rapidly growing movements in New Zealand and abroad. Climate change, environmental awareness, animal welfare and increasingly educated and health-conscious consumers have meant both sectors are gradually attracting more adherents and transforming into profitable industries. And while New Zealand, with its clean brand and vast agricultural resources, is seemingly poised to capitalise on both, it has long been lagging behind much of the world.

Gary Hirschberg is the co-founder of American company Stonyfield Organics and the founder of New Zealand’s organic entrepreneurship institute, which he’s establishing in Motueka near Nelson.

When he first began growing organic food in the early 80s, the US market was worth only US$2m. Today it is a colossus worth US$52b with almost 140 million regular consumers. And it’s not just the US. The global organic market was estimated to be worth $165b in 2018 and forecasted to grow to over $670b by 2027.

Organic products, grown without the use of chemical additives, have become more popular in the Covid-19 era (Photo: Getty Images)

The growth is stable, too. While other industries have seen their trade crippled by Covid-19, Hirschberg says the pandemic has only exacerbated the demand for organics, particularly in the US where he currently lives.

“The US government has not been reliable; it’s held in very low esteem when it comes to this crisis,” he says. “So people have been turning to non-conventional sources of support to keep their families safe. A much larger circle of people has recognised that the first step in protecting your family and keeping them healthy, is avoiding things that depress your immune system, i.e. chemicals.”

In recent years abundant scientific research has emerged showing the health benefits of eating organic and avoiding the harmful pesticides and carcinogenic chemicals that are typically applied in non-organic production. According to market research, increasingly health-conscious consumers are subscribing to the science and paying a premium for organic food in order to keep themselves well, thus creating a thriving market.

Yet while preventative health is growing in the US where the risk of contracting Covid-19 is relatively high, the growth in the New Zealand market is just as impressive.

According to the 2018 New Zealand Organic Sector Report, the domestic market was worth $600m, up 30% from 2015, with exports growing to $355m. Yet with only 88,871ha of organic farmland out of a total of 12.1m, Hirschberg says New Zealand has a long way to go before it reaches its potential as a world leader.

“I see huge, huge potential and an almost unlimited demand for New Zealand products. Which is exactly why I built the school there. I think New Zealand could actually be the model for the world.”

Gary Hirshberg (Photo: Pure Advantage Our Regenerative Future)

Hirshberg says the main obstacle facing the domestic organic market is the lack of a single legislated certification or seal, such as found on products in the US and in other countries. While New Zealand has three main certifying agencies: BioGrow NZ, Organic Farm NZ, and AsureQuality, whose seals consumers tend to recognise on products, the differing standards and inconsistency can create wariness among buyers both here and abroad, potentially hindering trade.

The other barrier is the lack of organic brand awareness in New Zealand relative to the US. While New Zealand consumers generally recognise large players like Ceres Organics and Lewis Road Creamery, most other organic companies or producers are smaller and far more obscure. Many New Zealand supermarkets still do not stock any organic produce on their shelves.

That’s why there’s an Organic Products Bill now going through parliament. Currently at the Select Committee, the bill would seek to increase consumer confidence and certainty for businesses and facilitate international trade of New Zealand products.

Although it has been well-received and gained cross-party support, both the Green Party and National are proposing to either amend or improve the bill before it gets passed into law, with National saying it fails to ensure New Zealand’s products will be recognised internationally and the Greens saying it needs a better definition of the word “organic”.

In any case, Chris Morrison, chair of Organics Aotearoa New Zealand, says the country’s organic sector is united in support of the bill.

“It gives regulation to the term organic and it gives consumers protection that when they buy an organic product it actually meets a minimum standard. And not only that, when we have organic regulation we also have greater access to export markets for organic products, which is really good because there’s high demand for that.”

NZ’s three main organic certifying agencies

Hirshberg agrees the bill is the first step to grow the sector, allowing New Zealand producers to expand and encourage more farmers to convert and earn a premium for their products while saving on inputs like synthetic fertilisers and pesticides.

“Right there, there’s a big outflow of dollars that are not necessary, because my 2000 farmers have proven you don’t need any of that stuff… It’s not about demonising people who aren’t organic, but it’s about giving a leg up for those who are by having a defined standard that has the government seal behind it.”

While a tangible solution for the organic sector may be within reach, progressing and standardising regenerative agriculture is a much harder ask.

Although it’s an equally burgeoning movement with more farmers gradually adopting methods that reduce their carbon footprint and environmental impact, its broad scope and varying definitions means it has a long way to go before it’s recognised by any national standard.

For some, the complexity is epitomised by the term “regenerative”, which has become a vague buzz word popular with politicians and marketeers, similar to what “sustainable” was a few years ago.

However, for the growers and farmers that practise elements of it, the results are exceptional. Earlier this year, environmental research charity Pure Advantage produced a comprehensive series called Our Regenerative Future, which featured analyses and stories from prominent farmers and growers who for years had deluged their pastures with synthetic fertilisers, only to transition to regen ag and see their stock, land and margins restore to a level of health never through possible.

Yet while the enthusiasm and anecdotal results may be growing, without New Zealand-based research or economic analysis to support the claims, the movement can only spread so fast.

For Mike Taitoko of Toha – a start-up that facilitates regenerative investment – this lack of mainstream science is the number one issue he hopes the next government will address in order to nurture the sector.

“I think the government’s got a huge role to play,” he says. “The top priority right now is getting the science done to be able to support a range of definitions. If you ask anyone what conventional agriculture is, you’re going to get 10 different answers. Regenerative agriculture is pretty much the same.

“People ask me what my definition is, and I kind of have one around the idea of creating a more holistic set of farm management practices in order to really build up the natural biological function of the soils to create health throughout the food system, from below the ground to above the ground, to the animals and the food we eat and beyond.”

Mike Taitoko of Toha (Photo: Suppled)

Taitoko says there’s plenty of international science that supports the viability and success of regenerative agriculture, yet there has been comparatively little carried out in a New Zealand context, as the narrative is controlled by conventional farming and the chemical industries that dominate it. Not only does this make it difficult to influence policy or legislation, but it’s also harder to convince farmers of the legitimacy of regenerative agriculture.

“What you get to see is that with our education system, our universities, our banking and lending systems, our infrastructure tools, our inputs and chemicals; everything is geared around intensive farming and conventional high input processing systems.

“It’s really easy for scientists who work in the conventional agriculture industry to say that regenerative agriculture is pseudoscience or there’s no proof that it’s viable in New Zealand. Well, just because the science doesn’t exist yet doesn’t mean it’s not valid or viable.”

Cerasela Stancu, sustainability director for Envirostrat, agrees that government led-research is essential in order to plug knowledge gaps and grow regenerative agriculture beyond mere aspiration. However, she says this needs to be done by looking at the entire industry holistically, rather than focusing on one particular element that a certain segment of the movement is advocating for – such as carbon-neutral goals.

“We don’t have an agreement of what is regenerative. On the contrary, we have different groups that are pushing regenerative agriculture, looking at certain dimensions depending on their interest.

“Personally I think some people see it as a solution to carbon alone. While for me, and many others, we look at regenerative agriculture as much more holistic. It’s not just about how we treat soils and the environment. It’s also about animal welfare. And just as important, it’s about the social dimension.”

Because the concept is so broad, Stancu says tje Ministry for Primary Industries has already started looking at regenerative agriculture to understand just how much it doesn’t know. This, she says, will allow policymakers to understand which areas they need to develop in order to begin to create a comprehensive framework, rather than forcing farmers to make a shift prematurely.

“I presume it’s [gathering] biophysical science and biophysical data, and eventually linking that also with productivity and profitability data, because we should look at regenerative from all perspectives, including economics and financials.”

Clarifying the financial side of regenerative and carrying out cost-benefit analyses for farmers and growers is one of the most critical parts of the transition. In a system where farmers are already experiencing enormous financial strain and surviving on extremely tight margins, many simply can’t afford embarking on something that might temporally impacts their yields and profit, even if it improves over time.

That’s exactly what Mike Taitoko is trying to address through Toha.

“We’re working pretty hard now through Calm the Farm, which was our first campaign,” he says. “How do we support farmers with the transition finance and advisors and education they need to make the shift as safety as they can?”

He says if farmers attempt to transition to a lighter farming model, they get penalised with higher interest rates by their banks because of the perceived risk of reducing inputs and de-stocking. So Taitoko’s instead pairing farmers directly with independent investors and ensuring that the business’s balance sheet is strong throughout the transition. He then presents the data to the bank to guarantee the debt risk is actually being reduced.

“So we expect the banks to reduce their interest rates as a consequence of farmers making the shift [to regenerative] rather than increasing them.”

The fragile financial position of farmers is also why Taitoko is dubious of any policy that places additional financial pressure on the system, even if the aim is to ultimately achieve cleaner pastures and waterways.

Along with The Green Party’s $300m fund to transition farmers into regenerative and finance the all-important research and development, it’s also proposing a levy on the sale of nitrogen and phosphorous fertiliser. While the policy has been well-received by some, others have criticised it as a tax that will simply penalise already overworked farmers.

While the Green Party has promised a levy on nitrogen inputs, it needs to be backed up by a solid science-backed alternative (Photo: Getty/Hager/Hopkins)

Taitoko agrees that even if reducing chemical inputs is essential to protect the environment, without a viable and science-backed alternative, the levy will do little to benefit farmers, or the land, which he says are both “on life support”.

“How did we get this far down the track where we’ve built so much stress and pressure into our farming model? The farmers are the ones who are working the hardest, who’ve got the most capital and risk at stake. They’re the ones who are having sleepless nights and are the ones left with the least in their pockets at the end of the day.

“So if you’re going to punish farmers for using certain inputs, then you better have a really good programme in place to support them and to wean them off those inputs and build stronger businesses – and as a consequence, their own mental health and wellbeing as well.”

Mike Taitoko says farmers can’t be made to quit chemical inputs without a viable and credible alternative (Photo: Getty Images)

While regenerative agriculture does seem like a scattered sector a long way from being unified, Taitako says there has been some very compelling progress, particularly among Māori landowners.

“We’ve got buyers in the US and UK saying that if New Zealand can provide regenerative organic meat into the market they’ll take everything they can get. And they said if it has some type of indigenous brand or relationship to indigenous values, the value of it goes up even higher.

“Some of the largest Māori brands and landowners are right now making governance decisions and operational decisions to transition to regenerative agriculture. And when you look at the size of the footprint of these organisations, it’s a significant transition.”

Of Maniapoto descent, Taitako specialises in the Māori sector and says its farmers tend to embrace regenerative methods very willingly as they’re often consistent with the principles of kaitiakitanga.

“We talk to Pākehā farmers and there’s a huge amount who are very keen and passionate about regenerative and making the move. But when we talk to Māori landowners, there’s something much more natural to them within their value systems. They believe that it’s as much a cultural imperative from a kaitiakitanga perspective as it is a business imperative.

It makes sense, then, why the Māori Party announced its own policy pledging $300m to fund Māori farmers into regenerative agriculture. The natural alacrity and instinct is there, so too are the huge commercial opportunities.

Of course, just how big and valuable this sector can grow depends largely on whether New Zealand can eventually provide certification for its regenerative produce. And while this requires the science and research to set the foundation, there are some accessible standards on which the burgeoning movement could model itself.

The benchmark and most popular definition comes from the man who coined the term “regenerative agriculture”: Robert Rodale, of the Rodale Institute in the US. Consisting of seven principals, it stipulates that organics and regenerative go hand-in-hand in order to achieve the gold standard launched a few years ago; Regenerative Organic Certification.

This model works for Chris Morrison of Organics Aotearoa NZ, who says organic certification is the logical first step for farmers looking to move away from conventional, input-intensive farming.

“We’re very supportive of Rodale. That’s where we see the future – organics being a minimum standard. And then above that is regenerative organics. So you’ve got to start somewhere and regenerative is a pathway towards certified organics and then potentially the gold standard of regenerative organic.

“We’re supportive of any party that supports that pathway and we believe it is really good for the economy and also for the environment.”

An organic dairy farm (Photo: Getty Images)

Cerasela Stancu agrees that the Rodale Institute has set an accessible benchmark and that the first step to meet it should be organic certification, potentially made more consistent when the Organics Products Bill is passed into law.

However, she warns that there are still many grey areas, and any political party that is promising more investment in regenerative agriculture needs to conduct thorough analysis and spend the money carefully.

“You know, there is a lot of focus and we see a lot of initiatives around regenerative agriculture. But to get from having that positive energy and interest through to building the systems so we can capture the benefits at farmer level as well as the market and consumer level, we still have quite a bit of way to go.”

No matter which party is pushing for it, one thing is clear: with a world facing the twin foes of climate change and economic recession, any new agricultural system must be developed holistically and prudently, guaranteeing the wellbeing of the land, but also the animals and humans that tread on it.



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