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Wednesday, 02 June 2021 13:55

Where's the dollars and sense?

Written by  Jacqueline Rowarth
Jacqueline Rowarth Jacqueline Rowarth

With all the hype around the benefits of regenerative agriculture, a significant aspect appears to be missing – economics.

We hear about farmer wellbeing. Sometimes we hear about production. But where are the accounts?

If the approach and rethink about systems is so good, why is the income side missing in discussion?

Most of us understand that Country Calendar is now more about lifestyles and people stories than working farms (with the occasional exceptions). RNZ’s CountryLife is tending the same way. Both are focused on motivating an audience, which is mostly urban, to tune in.

But the farmer who is trying to make a living and is being barraged with the regenerative stories deserves some New Zealand dollar figures. These are nowhere to be found.

Some examples of success used in the media recently have suggested that pasture production has increased, without giving an indication of starting point.

Others have shown that production per animal has increased, without indicating the stocking rate. Statements about animal health bills decreasing do not necessarily reflect the health of the animals (ask a veterinarian…). And assurances of increased wellbeing and resilience are self-assessed.

In the Australian research that is the basis for some of the statements, the improved scoring in well-being – despite increased financial stress – reflected consultant support.

The research was funded by the National Environmental Science Program and ‘resilience’ was described as ‘not changing very much’.

Using the same data and comparing it with a national database, the Australian Farm Institute (AFI) calculated that the opportunity cost of biological resilience was A$2.46 million over a decade – a quarter of a million Australian dollars a year.

This was because the conventional farmers were able to optimise management during different seasons, including drought years, whereas the regenerative farmers were constrained by being prepared for the worst case.

The research was published as “Graziers with better profitability, biodiversity and wellbeing”. The AFI also pointed out that profitability per ewe is not the same as profitability per hectare. Further, no causative link between ecological condition and farm profitability was identified (biodiversity was assumed not measured) and well-being was not assessed on objective criteria.

Of further concern should be that most of the people being interviewed in the media urging uptake of regenerative agriculture do not rely on farming for their survival.

They have been successful in other activities or are making money from consultancy assisting farmers to change ‘for the better’.

Despite these clear difficulties, reassurances given by people who appear to know the subject are persuasive and accepted.

They are receiving a considerable amount of airtime and the interviewers are not asking the hard questions. This doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be asked.

Align Farming is one of the few examples indicating that all might not be as rosy as presented by advocates, but these accounts have not yet been shared. At the moment, we have statements such as ‘expensive’ and ‘can put a strain on feed supply to have big areas out’.

We also have a considerable number of New Zealand agricultural scientists from various backgrounds of soil, plant, animal, environment and economics, questioning these stories for detail. The irony is that agricultural scientists have been told by regenerative agriculture advocates that we can’t understand because we are ‘reductionist’ and the system needs to be regarded ‘holistically’… yet what we are being presented with is parts of the whole; nobody is able to join up the dots or complete the jigsaw. The dollars are missing.

A simple call to ‘open the books’ might be all that is needed to help farmers make decisions. Then scientists could focus on improving what is already a world-beating system (whatever aspect of soil, plant, animal, environment or economics you choose), rather than being distracted by assertions.

Farmer well-being certainly needs attention, but that will be fixed by acknowledging great work, not by putting income under threat with unsubstantiated promises.

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