Regenerative Farming - my views
I grew up and farmed on land cleared 130 years previously. Precious little reference to its geological or Maori past was retained but there was an inherent dislike of wet ground which led to severe drainage using ditches, then timber drains, then clay pipes, then mole drains - all of which to a greater or lesser extent are still working in maintaining dry pasture land.
In the 1970s, whilst working there, I witnessed the soil collapse of 2,000 year-old Malaysian padi fields after only a few years of the use of petrochemical fertilisers.
On my return to NZ, I saw a similar situation with urea destroying the soil on my farm and immediately introduced sabbatical fallowing, the biblical term for regenerative farming (1). The effects were remarkable; pastures lasted longer in dry periods and dryer in wet times. Black soil depth increased noticeably.
We fallowed a seventh of our farm each year for 9 months by which time we would have a plague of birds, mice and grubs feeding on the seeds. We would graze it heavily using cattle to stomp down the rubbish at the end of the fallow. The subsequent pasture grew up virtually weed-free and vibrant with a good mixture of grasses and clover.
The fallowing allowed grass to grow high and the roots to punch lower, followed by worms and other soil organisms dragging down carbon from the surface. The birds supplied the land with a liberal amount of phosphate. And I learned that the fallow provided sufficient sustenance to feed the microorganisms for the following six years. It was a very enjoyable symbiotic way of farming with much-improved soil structure and animal health, but it was stridently belittled by industry, most farmers and some academics. Our deep black soil was proof enough for us and our believers. (2)
We carried on fallowing for many years and developed flourishing pastures and livestock. However, on reflection, I like others who were doing it at the same time, came to realise that regenerative agriculture using animals as part of the mix is quite unrealistic. With heavy grazing, the soil ultimately becomes minerally depleted.
Now I want to move forward to the present and the added knowledge I have gained.
The Protein Myth
Note that NZ sits in the same space as US and Canada.
All the red above the black line is excess to what is needed, so let us agree that the world needs very little animal protein. NZ exports are largely produced to exacerbate the surplus. Furthermore, the sale of milk powder for babies is a travesty, where milk powder (infant formular) produced hygienically, but with monstrous global warming, is frequently mixed with dirty water at the point of usage, when mothers’ milk is far more suitable.
We should also recognise that most non-communicable-diseases are exacerbated, if not caused, by excess protein and fat intake. It is now widely proven and accepted that reduced meat and milk intake is associated with a decreased risk of cardiometabolic diseases and premature mortality.
NZ is producing a huge amount of unnecessary protein; plants can produce the equivalent amount of food on 15% of the land needed by animals.
NZ Pre Colonisation
Next, let us look at what NZ looked like before colonisation. Much of the land was covered in age-old podocarp forest and huge areas of swamp and peat country. For millions of years, all this land was ideal for the sequestration of carbon.
When Banks and Cook reported back to Britain, they declared the country was all “bog and swamp”. In reading about early Rangitikei and Manawatu, where I grew up, I came to understand that most of the unforested land was a peaty swamp or bog. Above and around these original swamps waterfowl and other birds teamed. (3)
When the first European settlers moved in, most of the swamps were impassible. There were a few tracks through them established by Maori, but stepping off these was dangerous. The first settlers released cattle into swamp areas and mustered them after a year or two. The cattle, being natural swamp animals, gradually created more and more tracks. After the cattle had consolidated more tracks, drains were created, trees cleared and pasture and homes established.
The reality is that while we are constantly reminded of the massive bush clearing, which so changed the image of the country, the prime damage to the land and the atmosphere was the destruction of the swamps. I acknowledge that for the past 150 years (after possibly 10,000 years of undisturbed peace) our wealth and wellbeing was sustained by the wool, meat and dairy produced off this land. However, the huge change destroyed the natural biosphere and has proven unsustainable with large demands on processed, often stolen, fertilizers to maintain production.
Whilst the many references to regenerative farming claim the increase in carbon sequestration in broad statements, it is impossible to find any verifiable numbers. We know that soils carry more than twice as much carbon than is carried in the atmosphere and more than 4 times as much as all living plants.
But, recent research has revealed that soil cannot sequester carbon for any length of time (4). It is now recognised that within the huge mass of microbes in humus, there are always those that gobble up carbon molecules before being devoured by others who emit carbon back into the atmosphere. The best that regenerative farming can achieve is to rearrange the carbon within the topsoil; the increase in humus means there are more active microbes carrying on the same process, along with the typical CO2 losses caused by grazing, cropping, harvesting, soil dehydration and soil degradation.
Peaty swamps drawdown, around 2 tonnes of carbon per hectare every year adding 1 millimetre of level, thus a metre of peat depth indicates 1000 years of sequestration.
Not only do swamps sequester carbon year after year, but they also convert nitrates into harmless nitrogen. When peat, bog or swamp, which is in an anaerobic state, is disturbed or drained, oxygen enters the system turning submerged carbon into carbon dioxide which escapes into the atmosphere.
So-called “reclaimed” land no longer has the resilience to hold on to carbon. Channelled rivers and dropping aquifers continue to cause the depletion of swamps and peat and so increase the carbon release.
Pitt Island lesson
On a recent visit to Pitt Island, in the Chatham Islands, the lesson on how peat is destroyed is clearly visible. When the first European landed with a few livestock, the bush was down to the sea. A small area was cleared for the animals and from that cleared space the bush and the peat retreated. Within living memory, bush and swamp covered almost all the island (5). Remnants of peat can still be seen but aeration of the peat caused by cattle “breaking the land in” and constant exposure to wind once the bush is disturbed carries on the peat destruction, leaving remarkable but temporary (given that there is no fertiliser available) clover ryegrass pastures.
Swamp and peat
When swamp and peat are drained dry soils eventuate, the land converts from a significant carbon sink to a dangerous source of CO2. The release of CO2 continues for many years until the peat becomes soil and ultimately inert dirt and dust. Interestingly, because compacting peat remains acidic, plant roots struggle to access deeper water during dry periods, which make peatland much more susceptible to drought, thus speeding up the progress towards dusty, carbon-free dirt.
Regenerative farming will never overcome nor equate to the land’s previous carbon storage. To achieve that, drains would have to be blocked, livestock removed, stop banks removed and the rivers and land allowed to regenerate for many many years. To quote my son Hamish, regarding water, - “The further it flows, the slower it goes, the more it grows”.
Where podocarp forests (also harbouring peat and swamps) were removed, the land was regarded as very valuable, as the thin topsoil had a spurt of fertility before the carbon was released. It was only later when phosphate was applied that the country appeared to become more fertile again.
I have heard it said that in podocarp rain forests, which is what NZ had, the “soil” depth was 10cm under the surface and 50cm above the ground. I certainly observed that phenomenon while working on a cattle farm in Malaysia, created from cut-over forest. It is in that layer, above and below ground, that all the micro-organisms are most active. The carbon capture by both the trees and the soil in a swampy forest far exceeds what might be captured in a regenerative farming system.
Nowadays, there is a dreadful belief that considers the rolling green pastures of NZ as being a natural phenomenon. Most such pastures took up to 50 years of vegetation clearance, drainage, ploughing, fencing and stocking to achieve the look. The Marlborough Sounds regenerating bush gives a good indication as to how easily nature can re-establish itself when allowed, even after that land was declared as lacking in fertility.
Alan Savory, the poster boy for regenerative farming, has been on a mission for many years. He and I found the holy grail at around the same time; he was killing elephants and I was farming with fertilisers. The myth that Alan founded his argument for regenerative farming, using livestock, is based on the herds that roamed the vast plains of Africa and America; their stocking rate was low and they grazed natural grassland once or twice a year. Since those days, vast forest areas have been changed into neo-grassland, and the wild grazers have been usurped by cattle and cropping.
I sometimes suspect Alan Savory, and many others promoting livestock-related regenerative farming, as a form of a “fifth-column” means to promote animal farming over land that was originally forest.
10,000 years ago the natural carrying capacity of the world was around 200 million tonnes of wild animals and a few humans. Large herds roamed over natural grasslands, but the stocking rate was very low.
The red line indicating humans in 10,000 BC, is a faint line above the green. We can see how even before processed fertilisers became common, humans had decimated the wild animals and increased the livestock above natural carrying capacity. This was achieved then, and continues today, by draining swamps, cutting down forests, and increasing carbon emissions. Humankind has pulled off the neat trick of turning oil into food and we are now in the frightening position of being totally dependent on oil-based fertilisers to keep us human animals alive, with little or no concern for the, originally, huge diversity of wild animals.
The natural Global Carrying Capacity is going down as we continue to deplete the soil.
The majority of farm-land use around the world, and particularly in New Zealand, is involved in feeding animals directly or indirectly; using them as part of a regenerative scheme is a mockery. We don’t need domesticated animals; neither do the dwindling number of wild animals. Returning 85% of the farmed land to bush and swamp and growing plants on the remaining land, for human consumption, is regenerative.
In the fullness of time, given the foreseeable circumstances, nature will win. What we must do is accept the inevitable and speed up the natural regeneration.
We must recall that the huge amount of effort that went into clearing the bush and draining the swamps was carried out by European settlers who were desperately trying to survive. We are now facing another survival crisis and the time has come for us to put an equal amount of effort into doing what we can to regenerate as much of the land as we can back to an efficient carbon-sequestering environment.
In the paper “Food and Fossil Fuels” (6), it is plainly obvious that the “undeveloped countries” have in general the lowest calorific cost of producing food (calories in/calories out). I would contend that these countries either encourage or are by nature, smallholding farming. The smallholder will often naturally carry out some form of regenerative farming. I can see a time when we will have small sustainable, animal-free permacultured farms across some of the country and the rest regenerating into bush and swamps.
If you are an advocate of regenerative farming, remember that NZ agriculture is responsible for 50% of all our greenhouse emissions and farming animals is the prime cause of this. Your first action must be to walk away from eating food of animal origin. Having achieved this, we can aid and abet plant growers to make full use of composting and crop rotations to reduce the use of fertilisers and sprays and carry out their farming in the most regenerative manner possible.
The joy is that we can each make the most significant contribution to regenerative actions and carbon reduction, without any recourse to rules or regulations simply by not eating animal products (7).
If you think I am wrong now, please remember that when I started my sabbatical fallowing 40 years ago, almost everyone thought I was wrong then. 40 years ago we were already 30 years into the anthropogenic era but did not know it. Now we have to act with urgency and courage.
In 2017 I wrote “The New Zealand landscape must and will change. Green pastures will revert to forest, domestic animals will become nothing more than species of interest, dairy factories, milking sheds, woolsheds, freezing works and millions of kilometres of fencing will become the “dark satanic mills” of New Zealand. I cannot foretell what the country’s economy will look like, but I can foretell that if the above came to pass, we would become a healthier and happier society.” (8)
I have recently read Tony Seba’s, of RethinkX, “Rethinking on Food and Agriculture” (9) which suggests that we have 8 years before the total international collapse of dairy and beef industries, more or less supporting my 2017 dream. It is time we put our minds to what NZ will inevitably look like in 10 years.
Investment in the cultivated meat space grew 500% last year and a recent study by Arizona State University found that 80% of people in the United States and the United Kingdom were open to eating meat produced in a factory. Mushroom-based leather has the same feeling as actual leather. Scientists in the United States have already managed to grow wood to the size of a coffee table in a few months, compared to a tree which might take 20 years and then be cut down.
Once more, referencing Pitt Island as a microcosm of New Zealand, the days of livestock farming are numbered. Woolsheds will remain full of valueless wool. Constant water supplies are now severely depleted due to the collapse of the peat and swamps. The remaining livestock will ultimately die or be shot. In the decades to come, the bush will grow back and the peating process will start again.
“Ma te tika te he ka tika”—we need to right the wrong.
Recently turned 81. Very happy with the way my life has gone but find myself constantly concerned about the way things are going.