Gen Toop, Greenpeace campaigner.

Our call to invest in regenerative agriculture

Gen Toop, Greenpeace campaigner.
Gen Toop is Greenpeace Aotearoa New Zealand’s sustainable agriculture campaigner.

Words by Gen Toop

Right now, there’s a palpable sense of possibility in the air. The Covid-19 crisis has been difficult and devastating, but there’s also a feeling that this disruption could be what we need to make widespread change.

That’s why it’s been amazing seeing the words ‘regenerative agriculture’ popping up in the news lately. At Greenpeace, we’ve long campaigned against industrial dairy intensification, synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and farming practices that pollute our waterways and pump out greenhouse gas emissions. Now we’re calling for the Government to invest in shifting New Zealand to regenerative agriculture as part of the Covid-19 economic recovery plan, and to ensure funding is provided in the years to come.

Sign the Greenpeace petition here.

Industrial dairying is New Zealand’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, and we’ve seen the damage it can do to our waterways. Many of us have had the experience of heading down to our local river swimming hole, only to find it slicked with green slime. Nitrogen pollution is worsening in 41% of our rivers, creating ideal conditions for algal blooms and endangering native fish species.

As the Government is planning its next moves to rebuild the economy, we see a huge opportunity for New Zealand to put some serious thought and money into the future we want for our country.

I remember going on my first ever march as a 13-year-old, standing up against GE food, a campaign that Greenpeace helped win – and that Soil & Health has also championed for many years. Four years ago, I became the campaigner on Greenpeace’s sustainable agriculture campaign, and over that time we’ve had several points of focus. From protesting ludicrous dairy expansion and irrigation in dry Mackenzie Country to calling out fertiliser companies for sliming our rivers, we’ve always stood for better ways of farming that have less impact on the land, water, animals and human health.

Phasing out synthetic fertilisers

Companies like Ravensdown and Ballance are making a killing off selling farmers tonnes of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. The fertiliser encourages quick grass growth, but destroys the soil ecosystems that need to thrive and leads to overstocking of too many cows.

In May this year, the Government announced a new cap on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser as part of their new freshwater regulations. It’s a milestone, and a testament to the work of thousands of people across the country who have been standing up for our rivers and lakes. But there’s still more to be done, and we’re continuing to push for the Government to phase out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser completely.

We know it’s not enough just to stop one thing. We need transformational change to the way we farm – something I suspect Organic NZ readers have known for a long time, too. Amid the upheaval and stress of the burgeoning Covid-19 crisis, we saw an opportunity for Aotearoa to build back better and transform New Zealand’s farming sector.

Farmer feedback and networking

So we stepped up our regenerative agriculture work. We consulted with regenerative farmers from across the country – long phone conversations that sometimes ended when the farmers needed to bring the cows in or move the hoggets. Some of these farmers are certified organic and some are weaning their farms off agrichemicals. All carry a love of the land and a hope to lessen the burden of the climate and ecological crises for future generations.

We built on networks formed when we filmed a short doco about regenerative farming in 2017. During that filming we saw first-hand beautiful dark soil underneath diverse grazing crops grown from over 20 different types of seeds. We met happy cows, healthy pigs and curious chickens roaming together.

In putting together our regenerative agriculture proposal, we also sought feedback from the public, and from those involved in smaller-scale organic gardening and farming. We recognise diversity as a key tenet of regenerative agriculture, and it feels right to involve many different viewpoints from the agricultural, horticultural and organic sectors. After all, the way New Zealand farms affects all of us, no matter where we live.

What came out of this process was a rich compost of ideas, which when thoroughly mulched with research and investigation into best practice, formed our $1 billion regenerative agriculture proposal.

Honouring Te Tiriti o Waitangi

A key guiding principle for Government adoption of this proposal is that any work the Government does to invest in regenerative agriculture must be done in partnership with Māori to transform the land-use sector in ways that honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi. There are several Māori-led initiatives and organisations already working in the food and farming sector, and they should be a key part of any transformation of the agricultural sector.

Regenerative farming draws heavily on indigenous farming knowledge, and we believe that we need to draw on traditional wisdom when looking to the future.

Image of protesters at Selywn River.
Fresh water protectors at the Selwyn River, February 2020, call on Jacinda Ardern to stay true to her 2017 election promise to clean up rivers

Five areas of investment

The five key points we’re asking the Government to invest in are:

  • One-off grant funding for regenerative methods like agroforestry, cover-cropping and reduced tillage
  • Construction of plant-based food manufacturing facilities and more small-scale, value-added food, fibre and timber processing facilities
  • Investment in research and development, training and advisory services for regenerative farming, including retraining existing government advisors in organic methods, and making the organic and biodynamic certification process free for farmers
  • Building of large-scale organic compost and seed production and storage facilities
  • Financing the fencing and replanting of streams, wetlands and marginal land.

Organic regenerative initiatives around the world

Our proposal refers to incredible steps that other countries have made to shift to organic and regenerative agriculture. Norway offers free advice from government advisors to all farmers wanting to convert to organic. In Brazil, nearly €6 million has gone towards production and distribution of organic seeds, including construction of 600 seed banks. The USA provides up to three annual grant payments to farmers for cover-cropping, to enable them to gain three years of experience in the practice. A higher diversity seed mix corresponds to a larger grant amount.

New Zealand has brought in similar initiatives in the past. The Greens won funding for organics in agreement with Helen Clark’s Labour-led government, which enabled Organics Aotearoa NZ (OANZ) to do things like set up an 0800 advice line, and subsidised farm advisor visits that resulted in two-thirds of participating farmers moving into organic conversion.

New market trends

We’d love to see Aotearoa leading the way again, and this includes adapting to new market demands and trends. Total retail sales of plant-based foods in the USA grew 17% in the past five years. In comparison, total retail food sales grew just 2% during the same timeframe.

While demand for plant-based food is clearly stepping up across the world, New Zealand lacks the plant-based food manufacturing facilities to keep up. We’re calling for the government to construct these facilities as well as provide grant funding to farmers and processors for regenerative organic and plant-based food processing.

image of tomatillos.
Greenpeace’s proposal fits well with Soil & Health’s motto: oranga nuku – oranga kai – oranga tāngata, healthy soil – healthy food – healthy people.

Thriving and healthy Aotearoa

Our vision is a thriving and diverse Aotearoa New Zealand with a thriving and diverse farming sector, where every Kiwi has clean water to drink and fresh, healthy food to eat – food that doesn’t come at a cost to our climate, rivers, animals and human health.

We know that there are thousands of people across the country that have long pushed for this kind of transformational change, and we’re inspired and motivated by them. As a nation, we can take this opportunity to kickstart the regenerative farming revolution. Our future generations will thank us for it.

Back the $1 billion proposal

Whether you’re an organic market gardener, a large-scale farmer interested in regenerative farming, a home gardener, or simply keen to see a shift to farming that doesn’t harm our rivers and climate, Greenpeace welcomes everyone to back this proposal.

You can read the whole proposal and sign the petition at: greenpeace.nz/regenproposal

Greenpeace would also love to hear your thoughts on how Aotearoa can make the shift to regenerative farming. Share your ideas and shape the future of farming here: greenpeace.nz/regenideas

Regenerative organic

Pinning down the definition of ‘regenerative farming’ can be tricky, but one great place to look is Rodale Institute in the USA.

Robert Rodale coined the term ‘regenerative organic’ to distinguish a kind of farming that goes beyond sustainable. Instead of just maintaining, regenerative organic practices build and improve the soil, the organisms in the soil, and the plants and animals that the soil nurtures. Regenerative organic farming recognises that healthy soil is the essential foundation of our food system, and practices can include no- or low-till, cover crops and agroforestry.

In 2018, Rodale Institute introduced Regenerative Organic Certification, which builds on and adds to the USDA certified organic standard: rodaleinstitute.org