Friday, December 8, 2023

PULPIT: Regen ag not just sustainability

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Food is important. Along with shelter, it’s the foundation of human needs. This importance was reinforced in 1970, when Norman Borlaug received the Nobel Peace Prize for his contribution to the plant genetic discoveries that spear-headed the Green Revolution. In his acceptance speech, Borlaug mentioned that the award reflected the committee’s recognition of how food and peace are intertwined.
Ministry for Primary Industries chief science adviser John Roche is the inaugural director of the new On Farm Support team.
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Maury Leyland Penno & Jon Hickford | February 09, 2021 from GlobalHQ on Vimeo.

Fast-forward 50 years to 2020, and the importance of food is once again acknowledged by the Nobel Committee, with the World Food Programme receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for “acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict,” particularly during the covid-19 pandemic.

Similarly in Aotearoa-New Zealand, throughout the covid lockdown, while people rightly heralded the important work of frontline staff in hospitals and on the “thin blue line” of our emergency services, our farmers, growers, processors and fishers quietly continued on their daily routine, producing the most nutritious and wholesome food for New Zealanders and millions of others around the globe.

Their work will become even more important as we strive towards feeding a world of nine to 10 billion people in 30 years’ time. Let me put this challenge into perspective: to nourish the world’s increasing population and meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger, we must produce as much food in the next 30 years as we produced in the last 2000 years. But, importantly, we must do this with a smaller footprint.

Globally, we need to replenish the land where damage to the environment has been done. This may include retiring some land currently involved in food production. If so, we might have less land to work with. We also need to find smarter ways of producing food, so we’re not contributing to atmospheric warming.

Are we up to the challenge? I believe we are, but we’ve got work to do.

In its vision for food and fibre production Fit For a Better World, the Primary Sector Council acknowledged the need for more regenerative production systems, to reduce the impact of our food and fibre sectors on the environment. There are big moves in this direction overseas too. Recently, Walmart announced that it’s on a path to being a “regenerative company,” seeking to “go beyond sustainability.” Similarly, McDonalds, Target, and Cargill have teamed up to promote regenerative farming practices among their suppliers.

So, what is regenerative agriculture?

The term regenerative implies restoring, renewing and replenishing, in addition to conserving. This reaches beyond what we traditionally think of as sustainability.

Internationally, regenerative agriculture has focused on soil health and the importance of low-till arable farming and rotational grazing. However, it makes sense to work with the characteristics of the country we’re living in. The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is currently looking to define what regenerative agriculture means from a NZ perspective, and develop a sound evidence-base to test and confirm what works in NZ soils, climates and farming systems. We’re putting out a call for proposals that investigate regenerative farming practices, through our Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures fund.

Broadly speaking, we see regenerative agriculture as a set of practices that, in isolation or collectively, may result in improved outcomes for our productive land, freshwater and marine environment, our climate, our animals, and for the people that grow and consume our food and fibre products.

This highlights the aims of NZ’s farmers and growers to pass on their land in a better condition than they received it, and is also consistent with the Māori kaupapa of kaitiakitanga, the restoration and rejuvenation of Papatuanuku, and whenua ora-tangata ora (when the land is healthy, the people are healthy).

It also acknowledges the needs of farmers and growers to be helped in their journey, and not unjustly criticised for what’s happened in the past.

Many farmers and growers are already undertaking numerous positive practices, like rotational grazing, fencing setback from waterways, riparian planting and low-till cultivation.

Through the projects we fund, we hope to gain a deeper understanding of what regenerative agriculture means for this country – and what does and doesn’t work.

We can then share this information with farmers with confidence.

We have some tough challenges ahead, but we are on the journey and he waka eke noa (we are all in this together).

With the ingenuity of our farmers and growers and strong investment in science and innovation, our food and fibres sectors can be the foundation of our post-covid recovery, while protecting the whenua for our tamariki and mokopuna.

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