Where do regen and organics stand on soil?

Diverging focuses on soil health and chemical inputs is illuminating a gap between regenerative and organic practices. But adherents say it’s an opportunity to come together and find a way forward, says Desmond Finlay. 

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In 2018, during the first Quorum Sense field day in Canterbury, two groups of farmers found themselves in a stand-off. In one group were the regenerative agriculture farmers, who were saying that the best  
way to improve soil health was to eliminate tilling, which allowed for the use of synthetic weedkillers, and in the other group were organic farmers – those who believed that the most important practice was to eliminate the use of herbicides, which meant there had to be some tilling. 

Sustainable agronomist Charles Merfield (Merf) was there, and he recalls the disagreement becoming quite heated. “There was a reasonable bit of antagonism at the time,” he says. “They were all farmers and they all bloody knew each other. But there was this interesting dichotomy, with both groups essentially claiming the moral high ground.” 

It might rarely boil over into a public dispute, but Merf says the conflicting emphasis on no-till and no-spray techniques captures a fundamental difference between the regenerative agriculture and organic movements in New Zealand. 

With organics representing a commercial sector and the regen a broad approach to farming, it is difficult to compare the two as like for like. However, both movements are arguably two boughs of the same sprawling tree. They share common values, followers, and the ultimate goal of creating healthier food-production systems. 

Soil is at the centre of it all 

Where they differ is in their rules. Certified organic farmers and growers are governed by technical requirements that generally prohibit the use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, antibiotics and genetic modification. Producers must meet those requirements for their organic certification, which provides a gateway to a lucrative market where consumers pay a premium for products they know have been grown without chemical inputs. 

Regen, on the other hand, is a fluid, farmer-led grassroots movement away from industrial agriculture  
to a more holistic way of working with the land. Rather than being beholden to commercial requirements, regen is based around a dozen core principles that together are proposed solutions to climate change, biodiversity loss, farmer hardship and food-system dysfunction. There are also few barriers to entry, allowing anyone to adopt regen if they have the will and passion. 

Merf calls regen a “mindset”, and soil is at the centre of it all. “From an ecological, scientific point of view, if you’re going to fix agriculture and biodiversity, the first thing you do is you fix soil health, because a lot of other stuff flows on from it,” he says. 

Being a relatively new movement in New Zealand, the research around regen is still limited. But Merfield says the benefits to soil health from reduced tilling, minimising compaction and planting cover crops are now well established through both anecdotal evidence and preliminary studies. 

“All the stuff they’re doing is well known within the soil science and ecological sciences as ways of improving soil biology and soil health. And the science is pretty clear – reducing the intensity of tillage will improve soil health.” 

However, that also means that on certain farms of a bigger scale, reduced tillage needs to be replaced with a viable alternative. For some regen farmers, that means continuing to use herbicides like glyphosate, which regenerative principles do not explicitly prohibit. Which is why the disagreement at the Quorum Sense field day became so intense. 

“Organic consumers and farmers are really concerned about pesticide and herbicide,” says Merf. “I’m really concerned too; we definitely need to reduce and eliminate them as soon as we can find effective alternatives. But I’m also really concerned about soil damage and soil loss as well. And I’ve been on organic farms where the soil is completely knackered due to over-cultivation, and nobody’s pinged them.” 

John McCafferty grows intensively in his half-acre no-till organic market garden, which borders the Pleasant River in East Otago.
Photo by Sky Eye. 

The best of both worlds 

While Merf feels the organics sector’s standards around soil health are no longer as strong as they should be, there are plenty of organic farmers and growers that have voluntarily adopted a dual approach in order to fill the gaps. 

John McCafferty runs Pleasant River Produce in east Otago, where he grows salad greens for the Dunedin market. Being certified organic, he doesn’t use any synthetic sprays or fertilisers. Yet he also doesn’t till, having found an alternative through widespread application of compost and mulch. 

 “I’d been tilling for years. That’s what most of us have learnt. It was really ingrained. But I had this huge weed problem and I could never really get over the hump. I’d heard about the no-till, no-dig approach, but it wasn’t until a friend came to help out and encouraged me that I began trying it in the garden, with immediate results in terms of weed pressure.” Sourcing such a large amount of mulch and compost (without herbicide residue, in John’s case) is a challenge in itself, which is why it may not be a viable tilling or spray alternative for growers on larger acreages. However, the important thing is for all growers and farmers to discuss their practices so they can find solutions for different problems, he says. 

Rotorua organic market gardener Jenny Lux feels the same way. She says regen and organics act as a gateway to the other, with some organic growers becoming interested in practices that minimise soil disruption and maximise carbon capture, while some regen growers are making the leap to certification to capitalise on the commercial benefits. 

“It’s not just about marketing though,” says Jenny, who’s also a director of organic certifier BioGro and a Soil & Health Association National Council member. “Organics has a long history and has a lot of research backing it as well.”  

Jenny agrees that some organic methods, such as excessive tillage or fertiliser use, wouldn’t be considered good practice on a regenerative farm, where fertility is improved through the likes of folding cover crops back into the soil. But on the organics side of the fence, the use of biocides like glyphosate is out of the question. At her market garden, she doesn’t till or use any synthetic sprays. 

“The regenerative crowd is still using it (glyphosate) as a tool. They say, ‘We’re going to minimise our use of it, and maybe eventually get rid of it’, but I don’t see a path out of that. That’s what concerns me. I don’t like the use of toxic chemicals in any place in our growing systems. So I don’t see how that could be regenerative in the final tally.” 

Common ground 

Despite these differences, Jenny says describing organics and regen as two separate “camps” is not productive. They are part of the same movement, and she stresses that any diverging practices aren’t a bad thing, but a fantastic opportunity for farmers and growers to come together and find a way forward. “The organic sector should actually be taking a leaf from the regen movement and going, ‘Well, are we improving our soil health every year? Are we actually measuring it in the organic standards?’” 

With the effects of climate change bearing down on all of us, she applauds the regenerative movement for inspiring farmers to become more sustainable, and sees organics playing the same part. “It’s a conversation between organics and regen – it’s not a competition. Both parts of the movement can come together to learn from each other.”   

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