GMO vs Regenerative

Hey consumer – it’s up to you if you want to see a change in our farming systems.

I normally keep my head low and decided a long time ago to save my energy for the already converted. However, a recent article in The Spinoff, written by Bob Edlin headed “Super grass is here, and it’s a green breakthrough. Can Greens stomach it?” has brought me out of my hole.

The article implies that GMO grass is going to save New Zealand farming. In a nutshell, it would increase farm production, reduce water demand and decrease methane emissions. Oh, and as the icing on the cake, it will apparently increase GDP by $2 to $5 billion.

The article also states there is funding from the government and industry partners including Dairy NZ. None of this surprises me.

So, here’s my counter argument….

Non-GMO grass grows just fine in NZ

I want to shed some light for those outside of farming circles because without this background knowledge, it would be difficult to understand why it hasn’t been a simple switch from “conventional” farming systems to a “biological” or more “regenerative” system.

In short:

  • Government owned educational institutes teach conventional farming systems (using synthetic fertilisers i.e. NPK/urea) and the skills taught are all geared around industrialised farming practices.
  • NZ banks will not loan money to farmers who do not have a synthetic fertiliser programme.
  • There is no funding from Government or industry partners in New Zealand for research and development around “regenerative” farming practices that do not use synthetic fertilisers or urea.

You can see the odds are stacked against you if you want to move away from conventional farming here in New Zealand. And those farmers who are making – or considering – the move, find themselves isolated in their bid to research environmentally friendly farming practices while still making a profit. After all, contrary to popular belief, there are very few farmers who can purchase farms without financial support.

Here’s another myth buster

I often hear people say farmers are greedy and that is why meat and milk are so expensive in New Zealand. I am told Canada’s agricultural industry tracks in line with New Zealand and Australia, so if Darrin Qualman’s graph showing the revenue of Canadian farmers over 90 years is anything to go by, our farmers aren’t set to become millionaires any time soon.

The green-shaded area highlights periods of positive net farm income; the red-shaded area marks negative net income periods. Most importantly, the blue-shaded area between the gross revenue and net income lines, represents farmers’ expenses: the amount they pay to input manufacturers (Monsanto, Balance, Ravensdown, Deere, Shell, etc.) and service providers (banks, accountants, etc.). Note how the blue area has expanded over time to consume almost all of farmers’ revenues.

Another interesting point is in the 1960s production doubled and it doubled again around 2010. So, the farmer is working harder, producing more BUT making less profit than he did in 1926!

GMO grass vs regenerative farming practices

So, the New Zealand scientists want farmers to grow GMO grass to further increase production, yet production has increased massively over the past 90 years under a conventional farming system.

Unfortunately, unbeknown to most (including the scientists), that system has been detrimental to our environment, animal health and farmer profits. The only benefit, it seems, has been to those within the blue line of the graph (where the manufacturers and sellers of GMO grass seed would firmly sit).

But the question then is, if non-GMO grass has been proven to grow just fine in New Zealand, why are we not funding research into “regenerative farming” first, before sinking millions into GMOs?

Under a “regenerative” farming system, not only does grass grow just fine, but it is more resistant to drought (less demand on water), more resistant to disease (less agrichemical requirements) and richer in nutrients (improving flavour and animal health and therefore reducing vet bills).

Farmers who were selling fattened two-year-old stock under conventional farming systems are now finishing stock at 16 – 18mths at similar or heavier weights on a regenerative system.

And if that isn’t enough to sway you – regenerative farming practices on our farm have showed improvements in the environment with healthy waterways, healthy soil, and healthy animals.

There are many farmers throughout New Zealand who are turning their back on conventional farming. And what’s interesting – as well as exciting – is that if we were to put them together in one room you could mistake it for a grey power convention!

These are our last standing heroes in my mind. These are the farmers that have farmed both systems – conventional and regenerative. And the one thing all these farmers have in common is that not one of them would go back to farming conventionally after transitioning to regenerative farming.

Regenerative farming – the breakthrough waiting to happen

Imagine the vast amount of farming experience and knowledge that would be in that room. These are not people who have learnt farming through theory; these farmers have been doing their research every day 24/7 over a lifetime on the land. And, unlike the paid scientists, these farmers take on massive personal financial risk.

Here is another thing they have in common – they are tired of trying to convince the scientists and industry partners that “regenerative farming” is the way forward. But this is the breakthrough that holds great potential for New Zealand farmers, NOT GMO grass.

Why, when there is clearly a massive push all over the globe for humans to pick up their game and start protecting the environment, is New Zealand still so resistant to move into this new era? New Zealand could easily set up regenerative farming systems that could propel our products into unique and niche markets. Why are the very businesses that are supposed to be supporting the farming industry so hellbent on trying to keep us fighting the rest of the world on a commodity market?

A quick search on Google showed in 2017 more than 35 countries had banned GMO food crops and China returned a cargo ship they suspected had GMO food onboard. Yet, clean, green New Zealand is still wanting to push ahead with GMO grass research. It makes no sense.

If I was going to have a guess at answering my own question, it would be that unlike GMO grass, nature cannot be patented. This is the only reason that I can see as to why so many scientists in New Zealand heavily dispute the pros to regenerative farming, and why no business or the government (in New Zealand anyway) is willing to fund any research to support our findings.

New Zealand stood up as a nation to become nuclear free; being GMO free would only strengthen our image surely?

Imagine if little ole NZ were to lead the way with a little forward thinking in our farming practices. And why would we risk our reputation as being “pure” anyway, when we can, and already do, grow non-GMO grass just fine in NZ. We can also do it exceptionally well without synthetic inputs.

About the author:

I am not a farmer, just a farmer’s daughter with the love of the outdoors. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but at least we are asking the questions. I have never met one farmer (conventional or otherwise) that went into farming with the intention of destroying the environment. I doubt the scientists 100 years ago did either. Scientists now are just working out that what they thought they knew about the soil, is barely scratching the surface. They are just finding out now what some of our regenerative farmers have known for decades. I don’t have a lot of faith in industry partners to change from the chemical input systems; however, I do have hope that the New Zealand consumer will help give the farmers a voice and back regeneratively farmed produce.