Things are looking up!

16 Aug 2022

An Ode to Regenerative Farming

Things are looking up for those of us who've thrown our lot in with the regenerative optimists.

After spending the last decade resisting progress like an odorous, arthritic, old mongrel being dragged along the climate change footpath, Australia has suddenly bounded into the climate action fray, tail wagging wildly, and things are happening at a cracking pace. In many areas, the work is energetic, authentic and brave, in others it's really just green washing and in some corners the whiff of the old dog lingers on.

But we're very excited because in Food, for example, 'Regenerative Farming' is having a real moment, endorsed by everyone from Prince Charles to Gisele Bundchen and shrieking at you from food labels, restaurant menus and instagram accounts. (I'm sure you've often wondered what, apart from our patrician good looks and enormous wealth, we might have in common with Chuck and Gisele, and now you know.)

Prine Charles and Gisele Bundchen

Of course, we've been championing Regen Ag since 2006 (tosses hair) and we wrote a book about it in 2020, but it's wonderful to see this recent explosion in interest, even if some of it is just virtue signalling.

In farming, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are under the spotlight and regenerative farming methods offer solutions.

Did you know that synthetic fertiliser production and use is responsible for more than half of the greenhouse gas footprint of the national wheat crop? (That's wheat, not meat, which is sometimes maligned as the source of all agricultural evil.) It's also very expensive and the cost is escalating at a crushing rate. This and the imminent threat that Australia will follow other countries in imposing regulations to curb emissions is pushing conventional farmers toward natural, cost-effective solutions such as compost and vermicast, as reported by the ABC.

But it's not that simple.

Long term monocultural planting and synthetic fertiliser use strips the soil and renders it lifeless and inert. The only way to repeat the yield is to use more fertiliser. Natural fertilisers, on the other hand, work in concert with the biology in soil and are therefore most effective when there's a reasonable baseline of biodiversity. So, to kick the habit and switch to natural fertilisers you first need to restore life to the soil. (This is similar with many food products where critical nutrients are only bio-available to animals, including humans, when food is grown and prepared the right way.)

As always, it comes back to respecting natural systems.

The point about a regenerative mindset (whatever you apply it to) is that it prioritises diversity at every level and it's, well, regenerative - practical, compassionate, restorative, attentive and deeply hopeful.

But there's no denying that we're in a hell of a tight spot and the scale of the challenge can feel overwhelming. This is where binary, simplistic, reductive thinking that sidesteps complexity and offers easy solutions becomes so seductive, like the get-out-of-jail-card in Monopoly. Reject meat and save the planet!

In fact, the Meat is Bad narrative does more for the fortunes of the Big Food companies behind plant-based meat brands than it does to fix the problem of a warming planet or redress global food inequality. For example, the giant US commodity meat producer, Tyson Foods, backed Beyond Meat in 2016 and now has a number of plant-based meat brands in it's 'protein portfolio', nestled alongside many truly heinous CAFO businesses.

If consumers took more time to investigate the money behind some of the plant-based meat brands they buy, they might realise that things aren't always as simple as they appear - and a great deal less appetising. And I'm not even going to start on plant-based meat. The idea that a highly-processed product with 15 plus ingredients (the key one of which is protein laboriously extracted from legume monocrops and resulting in vegetable waste) is better for you and the planet than a product made of a single ingredient produced on a healthy, balanced, regeneratively-managed farm, is ludicrous. (Here's a sensible review of plant-based meats.) 

Then there's the likes of the silver-tongued high priest of the intellectual anti-meat movement, author George Monbiot, who argues that agriculture is the cause of all our problems, the planet should be permitted to rewild without domestic animals and we should grow all our food in a petrie dish. To be fair, I think he makes some good, gorgeously-phrased points, but this petrie dish food, no animals business is bullshit.

The problem with these binary narratives is that they're all anchored firmly within the same interventionist, egocentric approach to food production that's caused the problems in the first place.

We need a new, ecocentric approach that moves us beyond these polarising, infantilising arguments and takes its cues from complex, biodiverse natural systems that foster all the creatures, large and small, allowing them to compete, cooperate and thrive.

Bring on the regenerative revolution!

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