By Robert Hickson 17/03/2021

Regenerative agriculture, where the health and wellbeing of the environment, animals and farmers is prioritised, is gaining cachet. I see that as a necessary but insufficient change to how we manage land and watery environments. In some respects discussions about regenerative agriculture are more backward- than forward-looking.

Take, for example, the UK’s Food, Farming and Countryside Commission. Their recent report “Farming for change: Mapping a route to 2030” looks at what it calls “Agroecology”. It examines how feasible it is to produce enough food for the UK in 2050 (despite the report title) while reducing fertilisers, pesticides and greenhouse gas emissions, improving habitats, animal welfare and peoples’ diets, and ensuring small scale farms are viable.

Based on modelling they find that it is feasible, and still have some products to export.

Source: Farming for change: Mapping a route to 2030. Food, Farming and Countryside Commission




New Zealand’s Pure Advantage promotion of regenerative farming is similar.

That’s bucolic and inspirational as far as it goes. Producing safe, nutritious, affordable and healthy food responsibly is essential. But regenerative agriculture looks to foundational changes, rather than transformative ones.

Its focus is on individual farms and producing traditional products, just more sustainably.


Moving from the farm system to the farming system

To become more broadly transformative requires generative as well as regenerative approaches.

Firstly, while the food system is often mentioned, most regenerative discussions are focused just on the traditional farm. Improving agricultural practices is essential, but more thought needs to be given to integration with emerging food production systems, such as urban farming, vertical farming, and “lab-based” foods. And also to aquaculture.

Aquaculture is having its own separate discussions (and here) about regenerative farming. That’s understandable because the environments and methods are quite different. However, if you want a transformed food production system all of these bits need to come together. Identify where the different parts can complement each other rather than just compete.

There is also the need to reimagine the logistics of processing and delivering food (and their waste cycles). Otherwise, it is like focussing on a shift from petrol-powered cars to electric vehicles without paying too much attention to the rest of the transportation system.

The approaches being taken to reimagine the electricity system provide another example for thinking about integration of different food production components.  (See the Oxford Martin School’s synthesis report too).


Farming more than food

Secondly, the regenerative discussion is typically about food production and environmental restoration. Viewing farms as commodity producers and environmental service providers. In the future regenerative agriculture is likely to be a bottom line. Everyone will be doing it, so where are the added value and market opportunities going to come from?

There is the need to imagine farms as providing other services and products. For example, as part of the energy production system. Not just for their own use but for other communities. Electron farms as well as food farms.

A bigger challenge is finding what higher value (non-food) products and materials can be produced. Some in the aquaculture sector are heading this way, but there is plenty of scope to consider how industrial ecology and other approaches could lead to novel medical, environmental and industrial applications for land-based agriculture too.

That’s not easy or trivial. Huge amounts of investment and research have gone into that already with limited success so far. Biofuel companies have shifted to personal care products as a more profitable market.

The 21st Century has been touted by some as the century of biotechnology. Most of the action is currently in the lab, but we shouldn’t neglect looking for more opportunities in the field, or water.

In my 2015 “constant gardener” scenario I suggested that a key step to improve innovation is a multidisciplinary consultancy that acts as a connector across the range of interested stakeholders. That’s still valid today, and something that New Zealand could excel at.

A few years ago I also suggested the need to think bigger about the opportunities for Predator Free 2050. More imagination should be applied to the farming system too.

Creating a “pest free” country and a regenerative agricultural system are great, but we shouldn’t see them as the end points. We should be thinking about the other new opportunities that we create along the way, and what happens after we achieve those initial value-based goals.


Feature photo by Fallon Michael on Unsplash