Opinion: In an opinion article on Stuff earlier this week, The problem with a regenerative farming approach in New Zealand, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, a director of DairyNZ, criticises students protesting in recent climate strikes about their support of regenerative agriculture. She sees the students as “urging policy without understanding”.

Rowarth draws a sharp distinction between ideology, which she portrays as an intrusion into policy processes that she argues should be founded on ‘science’. The students are being ideological. Rowarth appeals to science to dismiss the concept of regenerative agriculture and justify the intensification of current agricultural practices.

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Regenerative agriculture refers to farming practices that encourage life in soils to flourish, such as bacteria, algae, microscopic insects, earthworms, beetles, fungi and so on. Examples of regenerative agricultural practices include rotational grazing, cover cropping, and applying compost and manure. The idea is to nurture soils, although some advocates argue for farming that works with specific landscapes, climates, livestock and people. They celebrate indigenous approaches to farming.

Regenerative agriculture is seen as an antidote to business-as-usual or productivist approaches that use fertilisers, pesticides, and other chemicals to drive relentless increases in productivity (productivism). 

I am not a regenerative agriculturalist, but I teach about the regenerative challenge to productivist agriculture students. I know there is a science to regenerative agriculture, just as there is an ideology to the complete set of interests and arrangements that we know as ‘science’.

My aim here, however, is not to settle the case of regenerative versus chemical (yes!) agriculture. My concern is with how Rowarth misrepresents the students as lacking understanding, and debates about competing agricultural futures as if one is science the other is ideology. In both these ways, she advocates futures that are long past their sell-by date.

Science and ideology

Rowarth argues we must continue to nitrogen-fix our pastures by applying fertilisers, because our pastures are not suitable for growing crops. Beyond the curious statement that most of our land is suitable for pasture but not crops, her position is not arrived at scientifically.

Even if she is right that the harsh realities of 21st Century life mean we must export more, this does not have to mean more productivism. There exist counter-arguments about the productivity of regenerative agriculture, as well as the necessity for growth and national dependence on pastoralism. There are also other realities to consider – environmental degradation, climate collapse, and the cultural and social values of healthy soils. Rowarth argues on the basis of political and ideological shibboleths, not science.

What the young climate change strikers do know is that business-as-usual agriculture has gifted them unswimmable rivers, monocultural rural landscapes, commodity-dominated export revenues, estuaries clogged with nitrogen, business models based on economic rent extraction and land speculation, and sediment-clogged environments.

These are the scientific facts of the legacy of a century of Rowarth’s science, irrespective of the prosperity it has afforded some. 

Scientific conceit

In building a science-ideology binary, Rowarth assumes science to be free from ideology – truthful, objective, and without favour. This is a very mid-20th Century view. Science does not stand outside society. It is social practice – ideologically grounded, power-riven, and messy.

Science exists to serve nation and society. Its pursuit of objectivity is helpful, and we must value the conditions that make science possible. We must ensure science does not become the tool of political projects, yet we must recognise that it is hopelessly entangled in them.

Rowarth, for example, declares in her byline a long career of working for and closely with farmers, science organisations, political actors, and others who have produced the productivist business-as-usual she advocates for – and its unfortunate legacies. This signals the potential subjectivity of science and scientists, yet Rowarth does not question her baseline assumptions, which are born of the long-term relationships between Aotearoa’s agricultural science and an agri-industrial complex of universities, farmers groups, chemical companies, government agencies, and other experts.  

Scientists need to ask where their certainties about social and political worlds come from. They should be more upfront and honest about how they ask their questions and come to their conclusions, even what questions should be asked and why. They should have the humility to recognise that may be part of the problem.

Rowarth should be given her voice, but she should use it responsibly. She should recognise the political and ideological lock-ins of her views.

Unfortunately, many scientists have become emboldened by their own lobbying and the political privilege afforded them by the myths about their objectivity and their truths.

Covid hasn’t helped. The science was important, but beyond explaining how viruses live, multiply, mutate and die and designing vaccines, the scientists’ performance was political and was applauded precisely for its political value.

Revolting students?

That students get excited and passionate, and the act of protesting shows they care. Rowarth’s business-as-usual is ripe for challenge. These students have taken up the responsibility to make the challenge and to imagine alternatives. Shame on the rest of us.

At a time when students see their futures threatened by older generations’ madcap pursuit of growth, those older generations should not judge – especially not in such a dismissive way.

Rowarth patronises young people, makes sweeping claims about the potential of science, ignores her own assumptions, makes claims about what she knows nothing about (student motivations), and unscientifically misrepresents what it is she dislikes. This seems far worse than what she accuses the protesters of doing.

One crucial difference is that she makes no commitment to making the world a better place. Scientists should disavow themselves of this kind of lobbying, preferably with the same level of passion that students take to their protests.

Nicolas Lewis is Associate Professor, Environment, Faculty of Science at the University of Auckland

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