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Arguments about regenerative agriculture illustrate the challenges of creating informed debate. More generally, democracies depend on voters understanding complex issues

Arguments about regenerative agriculture illustrate the challenges of creating informed debate. More generally, democracies depend on voters understanding complex issues

The overarching title to this article, that regenerative agriculture is not redundant but can be misguided, contrasts with a recent Newshub article stating that “regenerative agriculture is a largely redundant concept for New Zealand” and hence “largely superfluous”.  

According to the title of the Newshub article, “NZ farmers adopted regenerative agriculture years ago”. The supposed source of these claims was a retired university professor called Keith Woodford. That’s me!

The problem is that I don’t believe I have ever used the words ’redundant’ or ‘superfluous’ in relation to regenerative agriculture. What I do say is that it has to be science-led and not simplistic dogma. Unfortunately, in many cases the dogma is not consistent with the science.

My perspective includes recognition that some key principles of regenerative agriculture have long been embedded in New Zealand agriculture. However, I always try to make explicit that there is still more to do.   

So how could this supposed Newshub article have been published? I had not even spoken to a Newshub reporter on the topic.

In the paragraphs below I will work through that saga. The purpose is to highlight the challenges in creating informed debate on important issues. But first, some general comments on how the mainstream media works.

Mainstream media is influenced by a perceived need to present things in black and white. The emphasis is on the sensational, and controversy always helps.

It starts with titles that entice readers. Those titles are chosen by sub-editors, not the authors. For online articles, the term is ‘click-bait’.

Then comes the lead-in paragraph, with riveting and preferably controversial statements. This lead-in is not the place for anything nuanced. Sub-editors also get involved there.

Readers often forget that a key reason for articles is to lead readers towards the advertisements. It is the advertisements, not the articles, that provide the profits to media owners.

Here in New Zealand, at various times I have been a regular contributor to two of the mainstream media. But I moved away to niche providers. In both cases I was dissatisfied with both titles and editorial changes. I was getting flack for things that were not my own. I walked away.

Another danger with mainstream media can be prior perspectives of owners who then appoint editors who share their perspectives. To borrow and adapt from an 1837 Andrew Lang quote, prior perspectives can lead to positions that resemble how a drunken man uses a lamp post, for support rather than illumination.

So now back to the trail of the Newshub article.

It started when a RadioNZ reporter approached me for an interview. That was in response to an article I had written for niche providers where my own title was “Agriculture will change but pastoral agriculture will survive and prosper”. I had made mention therein of both regenerative agriculture and organic agriculture and the RadioNZ reporter wanted to tease out more.

I have done many such interviews on many topics. When interviews are pre-recorded, I am always nervous as to the sound-bites that will be played. Typically, recorded interviews are between five and ten minutes, sometimes longer. It is easy for sound-bites to be taken out of context. At the end of this particular interview I said to the reporter that I was trusting him not to take comments out of context.

Given a choice, I prefer to do radio interviews live. That way I know that I can only blame myself if it does not come across quite right.  In years gone by, I have given live interviews for many RadioNZ programmes such as Checkpoint and it was always fun with sharp interviewers like Mary Wilson. Similarly, on occasions I do non-edited radio interviews for programmes such as The Country with Jamie Mackay. But with RadioNZ rural broadcasts, as with most mainstream TV interviews, the format is to pre-record and editors then use sound-bites.  

In this case, I did not hear the interview when it was played, but my wife heard it while driving. The key message she received was the importance of getting some science into regenerative agriculture. That was something that I had indeed emphasised in the interview. I had also emphasised the importance of recognising some of the challenges of regenerative agriculture.

About ten days later I became aware of the Newshub article when my wife read out to me a Google alert.  My first reaction was ‘who is saying such provocative unbalanced things? My wife replied that it was me! I admit to being more than a little angry. That was not what I had said.

I then inquired with RadioNZ to fill in the pieces of the trail.

I then learned that RadioNZ reporters feel pressure to work with multimedia. That can include writing additional articles that go beyond what is aired on radio itself by adding their own interpretations. First, these go on the RadioNZ website. From there they can go to Newshub and elsewhere under a shared-material arrangement.

In this case, the reporter, having written his own interpretation of my perspective, approached another person to provide a counter perspective. With the strawman having been set up, it was easy for the other person to knock the strawman down.   But did that actually provide evidence-based insights? I don’t think so. Rather, it was just noise with two people apparently hurling negatives from the edges.

Fifty years ago, with the world population less than half current numbers but growing at two percent each year, it seemed inevitable to many that we were on a journey to global starvation. The reality is that available food has increased faster than the population increase. That is because of science and new technologies.

As for the next fifty years, they will bring a new set of challenges. There are indeed limits to growth. There is an old saying that only economists and madmen believe exponential growth can go on forever. Global population growth has slowed but is still at about one percent each year. New Zealand, with high immigration, has been exceeding that level.

Although science is needed to underpin new developments in agricultural systems, conventional wisdom as to scientific fact can also be wrong. There is a saying often recited to first year medical students, particularly in the USA where medicine is a postgraduate course, that ‘half of what you are going to be taught is wrong; unfortunately, we don’t know which half it is”. I reckon I have spent much of the last 20 years fighting against so-called settled science, with that term often used to shut-down genuine science inquiry.

Identifying problems is easier than finding solutions. One issue for which I have no clear answer is how in a democracy we can communicate key science-based issues to voters who want to see things in simplistic terms.  Democracies depend on informed voters.

Although I have no easy solutions, I would like to see more high-school students graduating with better understandings of bio-physical systems. It has to be fundamental to any education. I would also like to see greater distinction made between facts and theories.

Linked to this, if we are to find a path through the challenges, then the media have special responsibilities to not create controversy by feeding the lowest common denominator. That includes not assigning words to authors and interviewees that they did not use.


*Keith Woodford was Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University for 15 years through to 2015. He is now Principal Consultant at AgriFood Systems Ltd. . He can be contacted at kbwoodford@gmail.com.

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33 Comments

"The reality is that available food has increased faster than the population increase. That is because of science and new technologies"

You forgot DEBT
Debt gets fossil fuel out of the ground .... which gets those supply chains ticking
If debt collapses, so will food supply

Without viable customers, you wont have any viable producers

Debt is just a bet on the future, obviously people have been happy to take that risk.

But the risk now is that credit is worthless ... Debt / Money / Promises are now being devalued towards nothing
Then you have problems

Science doesnt solve this
Are you happy to send your cattle to the hungry , just because you know the science of good food production?
Or is it because you can get paid more than what it costs to raise them?

Agree on bio-physical systems understanding needing to be a fundamental part of modern educational objectives throughout primary and tertiary. And once young learners have that fundamental understanding, only then can they move on to critical thinking on the nature of the science-policy nexus - and the MSM approach to science, Keith.

Weingart defined the nexus in 1983 as "a recursive coupling of two interdependent developments—the scientification of politics and the politicisation of science" and he covers exactly the points you are making above in this article;

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1084252/

I teach the theory associated with the science-policy nexus in every 100-level course that I can in both science and planning disciplines.

"Critical thinking" and media do not mix: don't like asking "WHY?" in particular due to required answer needing more than 4 sec attention span.
Media, mobile phones and internet have created a non-analytical trend that means LESS knowledge of what is going on and why in general pop who spend far too much time on FB and looking at their own navel

I appreciate your conclusion! I would add to it - unrelated to the age, unfortunately can see quite a few simpletons at every workplace I worked and in a variety positions,it is disgusting to see totally unable to think management

Who or how will the clock ever be turned back?
The explosion of words on the internet that allow people to find all the 'evidence' they need to support their stance.
AGW.
Immunisation.
Fat v Carbs.
etc etc....

...organics versus modern agriculture, GMOs, four year term...oh wait

The Chief Inspector of Schools in Britain has taken issue with the way many schools convey to their students the information around climate change, likening their methodology to " a modern day morality tale ". She wants to see the subject covered under the heading of science, with the relevant information conveyed to students in neutral terms so that should they wish to take a position on the matter they will be able to do so from an informed perspective. She goes on to say that climate activists are targeting schools as a soft option for getting their message out.

Rock and a hard place there Keith.

What do you do going forwards next time RadioNZ come to you for some thoughts?

Hamish,
Regardless of who might approach me, it has reinforced a prior inclination to not be an interviewee. Rather, to rely on situatons where I can be sure that not only my own words are used, but that they remain in context. However, that does limit the audience. And there lies the nub of the issue, not just for me, but for anyone who wishes to influence societal issues from within a science framework. So that remains an'inclination' rather than a rock-solid rule, an inclination that I may continue to break away from on ocassions. Working alongside mainstream media is very dangerous for anyone who works for an organisation rather than for oneself. And even then, when working for oneself, you have to accept that some doors will slam shut. My advice to any scientist who is 'early or mid career' woud be to be very careful about taking public positions on issues that are controversial.
KeithW

Thanks for the response Keith.

I guess that goes back to a desire to have scientific thinking taught in schools. What is the hypothesis? How should we test it? How was the testing conducted? Is it repeatable? What are the conclusions? But more so today, what motives sit behind the presenter(s) of the scientific study?

When you suggest that scientists be careful about taking public positions on issues that are controversial, well that may not be apparent immediately. The most obvious recent example would be COVID-19. To be asked to take a public position right at the start of the pandemic may not have felt like a controversial issue. But wind the clock 6 months or 12 months forwards.....

My gut feeling whilst stumbling through a degree in ecology in the early 90's was that science was already becoming lost as a pure pursuit. But I guess it probably had been for quite some time before then. Increasingly it seemed to me that without a commercial reason for scientific inquiry, then scientific study would not be undertaken. If there were two studies to go looking into at postgrad level, the study that could attract outside funding regardless of 'scientific merit' would win hands down every time. Not always a good outcome for growing the scientific knowledge of NZ and for us to contribute to global knowledge. And in light of that I shudder at the commercial approach our CRI's seem to be steered towards these days.
Cheers.

Hamish,
In broad terms, I agree on all of those issues.
In relation specifically to Covid19, we now know so much more than we did back in January. In some of my articles on COVID19, I have tried to emphasise the uncertainties and the dangers of locking in around specific assumptions. However, all in all, I think we have not done too badly in NZ in relation to COVID19. I think we could have moved more quickly on some issues, and that was the key driver of my very first and subsequent COVID19 articles, but we got there.
As for the CRIs and the broader R&D system, I think there are some very interesting studies that could be done on the sociology of R&D institutions and how decisions are made. Even in universities, an important and often explicit KPI for promotion includes ability to source external funds.
KeithW

Case in point Jacqueline Rowarth?

Rowarth was a classic example of Upton Sinclair's famous dictum: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2017/11/30/salary/

We had to be past that; we're simply out of time for a lot of things.

Excellent indication of how media work and why it is v difficult to get any rational analysis of what is happening or needs to happen to make improvements. In housing, as well as in growth in general coverage, get same linear thinking. A cycle is just that, not a linear straight rising line. Attempting to prevent downward direction of cycle causes distortion and manic episodes. Like the last 5 months which are out of sync with population trend of house-buying section of population. Hence it will dissipate.

So to sum up, fake news. That is why I skip ahead when "experts" appear on the news programs I have recorded, especially the epidemiologists.

spinach1,
My attitude is that people can be 'specialists' but I do not like the term 'expert'. At best, we are all learners. And once we stop being willing to learn, then our perspectives are dangerous rather than helpful. The philosophy of science and knowedge acquisition is very interesting. As Kuhn once said, science only advances when the old scientists die and new paradigms take over. But unfortunately, a lot of the new scientists are also followers rather than explorers and they get locked in to prior positions. The wonderful thing about science is that truth always wins out. But the sad thing is that it can take a long time for that to occur, with power relationships based on falsehoods also being an issue. If only we could work out what was true and what was false, but none of us are perfect in that regard. And in relation to democracies, Churchill once said that it was a terrible system but all the alternatives were worse.
KeithW

We covered this in a paper about critical thinking while I was an Architecture School, which was really about control of the image, and control of the narrative. Answer was to turn off the radio and TV, and don't bother reading the newspaper, it is all controlled.

Isn't fact just one of the better theories?

"Democracies depend on informed voters"

Democracies only depend on surplus.

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter - Winston Churchill

I tiink you may have taken the Churchill comment out of context. He is also on record as saying that all of the alternatives were worse.
KeithW

“The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.

:)

Very true
But in times of non surplus democracy will inevitably collapse for more "efficient " systems

I challenge this, Keith: "That is because of science and new technologies".

Yes, but they could only be applied using fossil energy. And it is in trouble, supply-wise. The first two posts here are worth serious perusal:

https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/

Looks like the discussion is moving on, though. Good on you.

Spare a thought for the politicans. They know no matter how much detail they put into a interview or answer, its the 30 second soundbite that goes on the news. Maybe 10% of the audience will read / search for the complete interview, usually on one of the "alternative niche "news sources.
Most mainstream news websites are 1/2 news 1/2 clickbait , usually featuring scantily covered breasts to lure clickers.
To the subject , can pure science explain all the biological combinations / processes / effects? I'm sure every gardener / farmer has tried something and got a irrational response. I used to go to an organic gardening group, and I always asked my Favourite elderly gardener questions on how a particular vegetable or plant might go . His answer was always the same , bang it in and see what happens. His garden was the best I've ever seen .

In NZ, kiwis tend to think the bottom line of dollars for the likes of sustainability, limit to resources, climate issue being populist into 'carbon neutral' etc (this is banking for future drawcard 'promo' for overseas investor).
What hardly being discussed is that 'the cost' to implement it, for this NZ also have a solution.. just print more.

Science has built the dairy industry.
But I drove the Thomson Track across the Canterbury plain recently. Dairy pivots now, tree rows removed, and you can see for kilometers. Madness.
(or maybe it was just bad science)

What a mindless uninformed comment. I suggest you take heed of Keith's comments and actually do some RESEARCH before posting. Unfortunately many posters on this site never miss an opportunity to put the boot into farmers!

DD62. You clearly have a strong opinion on the Thomson Track changes but could you please outline what those actually are.

It doesn't need posters to put the boot into farming - or anything else.

If anything is unsustainable, it will put it's own boot in. Centre-pivot-level intrusion into the biosphere, along with monoculture ditto, is a clear indication we pushed it too far. In my line, the 10-27 calories of fossil oil required to produce one calorie of food, from a finite, cherry-picked and half-burned resource, tells us farming as practiced was unsustainable and in short-term trouble.

https://www.advisorperspectives.com/articles/2020/11/30/what-oils-troubl...

powerdown - you did not read DD62s comment correctly - he said farmers, not farming.

Powerdownkiwi,
Centre pivots are an excellent example of how spay-irrigation systems have moved towards low-pressure systems that use much less electricity than their predecessors. NZ farmers have been on that journey for some 20 years, once it was realised how the centre-pivot system could be used for pastoral farming in a NZ context. The centre-pivot system also scores very highly for minimising N leaching compared to predecessor systems.
KeithW