Community-Centric Innovation and the Regenerative Farming Frontier
There is a new frontier of food and farming emerging. Its emergence is in part a response to the limitations and negative impacts of our current farm systems, and in part driven by a realisation that ‘regenerative farming’ is opening up a new world of possibility. Many of our current farming systems are being ‘squeezed’ by commodity market competition and volatility, rising costs, public scrutiny and regulation, plus potentially disruptive technologies that bring significant challenges to the ongoing viability of agricultural businesses - farming is becoming increasingly complex and the future less certain. Recent KPMG Agribusiness Agendas have identified these pressures and called for New Zealand agriculture to target high end consumers, focusing on product and environmental leadership and excellence. What is perhaps less emphasised is the scale of shifts required in our farm systems if we are to truly respond to our changing reality.
This report is a call for a new and additional ‘approach’ to agricultural development and innovation in New Zealand. As I travelled with Nuffield it became increasingly clear that regenerative farming not only full of opportunities, but shifting our farm systems and practises in this direction is both a positive and necessary response to our changing reality as farmers. Regenerative farming is a broadly defined system of principles and practises focused on biodiversity, soil health, ecosystem function, carbon sequestration, improving yields, climatic resilience and health and vitality for farming communities. A key feature of these farming systems is their high demand for knowledge and creativity in designing and managing the complex biological relationships that underpin their success, as opposed to conventional systems that are more dependent on inputs for control and management. This key distinction is where our current agricultural development and innovation system falls short in its potential to support regenerative farming. Our current system focuses on a “science-driven, linear, technology transfer-oriented approach to innovation” (Turner et al. 2015) that, while perhaps suited to more homogenous and input-oriented conventional farm systems, does not align well with the more holistic and high risk innovation demands of regenerative farming (that also offers less opportunities for agribusinesses).
The ‘approach’ to support the innovation of regenerative farming systems and practises needs to move beyond old dichotomies between ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ drivers of change, towards community-centric approaches guided by the knowledge, experience and creativity of farmers and rural communities, with the support of other actors (ie. government, policy, research, relevant businesses and organisations etc). Farmer and practitioner experiences of making or supporting shifts towards regenerative farming, around the world, have formed the basis for the conclusions of this report. Community-centric approaches were observed to facilitate diverse participation and place equal value on local and external expertise, where everyone ‘meets as equals’ in a shared commitment to achieving community goals. In this manner, the diverse interests of communities and society can be acknowledged and incorporated into decision making and action, with the potential to reconcile apparent conflicts within and between rural communities and wider society.