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Accounting for the future

This is the editorial from our May/June 2023 issue, published here along with its online references.

A recent article in a farming magazine1, bemoaned that an estimated $55 million has been spent comparing organic/regenerative to industrial (named conventional) farming – with the conclusion that regenerative farming produced less profit and more GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.  

In the report2 referred to, however, regenerative farming modelling had lower GHG per hectare (3.9 T CO2e/ha versus 5.0 T CO2e/ha), but industralised farming had higher production so it was calculated to have lower emissions per kilogram of product.  

I have studied and practiced organic farming for many years and have repeatedly noted how clay and anaerobic soils can change into black, sweet-smelling loam in an amazingly short time – undisputable evidence of carbon being sequestered and biological life returning to the soil. I note the improvement every time I dig a hole. I sit down and count my worms and feel vindicated.   

But soil carbon is not factored into New Zealand’s GHG modelling or our national greenhouse gas inventory3. It is overseas, but NZ deems it too labour-intensive and expensive 4.   

Also, as Dee Pigneguy pointed out in OrganicNZ Jan/Feb 2023, 70% of the world’s methane is estimated to pass the through the soil each year, coming into contact (in a healthy organic soil) with methanogens – microbes that digest methane. This closes the loop with ruminants (cows) in the methane cycle. It’s another factor unaccounted for and unmeasured in the GHG calculations.  

Organic farmers are well aware that everything, including gases, have a natural cycle and nature is complex with multiple factors and processes synchronised. Science has made tremendous discoveries in recent times, but their understanding of, and ability to measure, these processes is still limited.  

The author of the original article, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, (PhD and a Director of Ravensdown, DairyNZ, and Deer Industry NZ), concluded by asking “how agricultural scientists, researchers and rural professionals can swing their work back to where it can make a difference for the future – testing new ideas rather than confirming why the old haven’t become mainstream”. 

I put it to Dr Rowarth that ‘the old’ organic practices were mainstream for centuries and it is only relatively recently they’ve been replaced with profit-focused ‘new ideas’ – which often prove to be detrimental to our soils, water, and climate. Charles Hyland details one on page 58.   

We know through experience, application, observation, logic, and international research, that regenerative organic systems are the most sustainable. Page 62 outlines the advocacy Soil & Health NZ is making for this to be recognised. But then, Dr Rowarth’s suggested new ideas include pasture species (do I hear GM?) and methane inhibitors in cows. Conversely, it is hard to make money out of organics which is a process, not a product. 

I suggest that instead of ‘new ideas’ developed without comprehension of the consequences, the focus should be on understanding what works (regenerative organics) and how to utilise this to the maximum advantage. 

That is what will make a difference to our future. 


1. Country Wide, February 2023, Page 78. Science and the Critique. 

2. https://ourlandandwater.nz/wp-content/uploads/2022/12/Regenerative-Agriculture-Value-Proposition-FINAL.pdf

3. https://www.agmatters.nz/actions/potential-actions/#soil-carbon


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