A whole-system, ecological approach to food production, resulting in a lighter environmental footprint.
Informed consumers in our major international markets (as well as in New Zealand) are taking increasing interest in how their food and beverages are produced. As a result of this, more conversations are happening about what has been termed ‘regenerative agriculture’. And while there is yet to be a clear definition of this, there is a general consensus that it involves a whole-system, ecological approach to food production, resulting in a lighter environmental footprint.
New Zealand is well-positioned to take advantage of this global regenerative agriculture trend, according to research commissioned by Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) and New Zealand Winegrowers (NZW). The research represents one of the most comprehensive reviews into the market potential for products grown in New Zealand according to regenerative principles, and shows there is a bright future for regenerative-minded producers.
With financial support from the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund as part of its Fit for a Better World programme, the study focussed on three of New Zealand’s key international markets – the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom – to understand the current market state and future potential of regeneratively produced food and wine. Amongst the findings is confirmation that consumers are willing to pay more for regeneratively produced food, especially if science can show it tastes better, is better for you – and is better for the environment. There are also opportunities to link regenerative agriculture with solutions to climate change.
The way New Zealand sheep and beef farmers farm aligns with the key pillars of regenerative products or production, says B+LNZ’s manager emerging markets and strategic projects, Nick Beeby. “We’re not saying all our farms are applying all of the regenerative agriculture principles all the time, but in general, we are better placed than other countries to meet these requirements. New Zealand farming systems are so different from conventional agriculture, such as in North America with their feedlot-raised beef and sheep meat, and what this means is there looks to be a significant opportunity for Kiwi sheep and beef farmers, and wine growers, to capture this value in the marketplace.”
Nick says B+LNZ is now working with farmers and other industry partners to develop a firm plan on how the red meat sector can capture this potential value for New Zealand, adding that regenerative agriculture aligns with the Taste Pure Nature campaign. “In the absence of a clear unified definition of regenerative agriculture globally, New Zealand must define what ‘regenerative’ means in a New Zealand context.
“We also need to examine other aspects to regenerative that may be worth adopting. Ultimately, this creates an opportunity for New Zealand to step forward to craft that definition. We need to make the concept simple and relevant for consumers. Moving forward, B+LNZ’s role will be to develop the framework in consultation with meat processing and marketing companies that can then work with our farmers to take advantage of this opportunity.” Nick adds that B+LNZ believes the key is in how we tell the New Zealand farming story, the attributes, measurements, and verification that sit around this story and the claims we make.
Wairarapa sheep farmers Ross and Dani Johnson say what interests them about regenerative principles is the potential to become more resilient to seasonal climatic extremes and make better use of resources. “We farm on two very different properties,” says Ross. “Each has its own challenges and we quickly realised that following a formula wasn't getting us anywhere. It's about making sure we are observing closely what is happening in each paddock through the different seasons and having the right tools to work with whatever nature is throwing at us.”
After converting a dairy farm into a finishing/cash cropping block, the couple found that although soil tests showed good levels for most nutrients, carbon and organic matter were very low. “Since then our focus has been on increasing soil carbon and organic matter and getting the biological systems functioning again,” says Ross. “Techniques we have tried include diverse species pastures and cover crops, moving away from cultivation to direct drilling, high density grazing and shifting multiple times per day, deferred grazing, and experimentation with biological soil enhancers.
“It's still early days, but we have seen improvements in the easily measurable things like liveweight gain, animal health and fertiliser costs. Things like soil health and biological function are harder to measure and take longer but we think we are seeing improvements there too.”
With the New Zealand wine sector’s world-leading sustainability programme, in place since 1995, vineyards in many parts of the country are already on the regenerative journey of increasing soil biodiversity, fertility, and improving soil structure, along with carbon fixation in soil and ground biomass. Both Jonathan Hamlet, national vineyards manager at Craggy Range, and Braden Crosby, viticulturalist at Ata Rangi, are committed to improving the ecology of their vineyards while growing vines that produce the grapes to make the great wine sought by informed consumers, both here at home in New Zealand, as well as in our global export markets – both taste-wise and environmentally.
Jonathan says regenerative principles are about creating a better ecology and there is a push into methods of growing that will last into the future. “This strikes a strong chord at Craggy Range which is in a 1000-year family trust, a move that has long-term focus and a multi-generational legacy.” He has been involved in growing vines organically and says a key message for him in regenerative practice is to always have a living plant in the soil.
Always having vegetation cover means the soil is protected which reduces erosion, improves water absorption which means less water is required, as well as helping roots to anchor and have a higher nutrient uptake. “In the Craggy Range vineyards we always have a permanent grass sward and cover crops – legumes to help fix nitrogen and we build up organic matter in the soil with cereals,” says Jonathan. “We have a big emphasis on holding onto water in our soils which takes the pressure off irrigation – a healthy soil holds water.”
Grape vines and cover crops are not the only plants at Craggy Range or Ata Rangi vineyards. Both are champions in planting hundreds of hectares of native trees on blocks where grapes would not thrive. From the likes of kahikatea, tōtara and rimu, that will one day be tall forest giants, to low-lying riparian area grasses and shrubs interspersed with tī kōuka (cabbage trees), the wineries see these plantings as part of their legacy for the generations to come. One of Ata Rangi’s founders, Clive Patton, spends mornings at his winery and afternoons in his native forest, stating that he loves planting, loves the bush - and loves people who love the bush.