How regenerative agriculture benefits the fine food industry

24 January 2023, 08:36 AM
  • Regenerative farming is having a moment, but the virtuous circle set in motion could have long-term gains for you, your community, and our planet. Anna Blewett investigates
How regenerative agriculture benefits the fine food industry

When M&S launched a high-profile collaboration with Wildfarmed recently, it was testament to the rise of a ‘new’ phenomenon that’s probably been embedded in your business for years.

In case you missed it, Wildfarmed is the Wiltshire-based grain cooperative on a mission to regenerate our soils and fight biodiversity by making low-input, regenerative principles work at scale. Its 42 growers use a range of agroecological methods (including sowing mutually-beneficial crops together and introducing animals where possible).

The resulting flour is sold to indie bakeries and now a high street (or, increasingly out-of-town) behemoth. One of its founders, Andy Cato of electronic dance duo Groove Armada, sold the rights to his band’s back catalogue to buy a farm in France to run along agro-ecological lines; another founder, TV presenter George Lamb, has joined him in sharing their mission via TV, the broadsheets and multiple podcasts this autumn.

And while an increasing number of farms are quietly adopting increasingly regenerative methods, Andy and George are the latest in a new wave of high-profile farmers –from Isabella Tree at Sussex’s Knepp Estate to Jeremy Clarkson with his slightly ham-fisted attempts at rewilding – to bring agroecology into the public consciousness.

Making the case
So where does ‘regenerative agriculture’ fit in your business? Whether you run a farm shop stocking the produce from your own fields or just have a single biodynamic wine on your shelves, this emerging category has huge relevance to every fine food business.

The term is rejected by some producers as being too woolly and ambiguous to apply to their own produce, but it’s fast become shorthand for the organic, local, low-carbon, pasture-fed, fairly traded, or biodiversity-supporting produce that generates benefits for rural environments and the people who live in them.

If regenerative principles gain traction in mainstream debate, it could mean the conversion of a new consumer base for the SKUs on your shelves with a local, sustainable story to tell. So, is it really happening?

“Ten years ago, when we started as a community project talking about climate change and land-use change, we really struggled to get anyone interested in the more nuanced stories,” says Josiah Meldrum, co-founder of Hodmedods.

“That’s definitely changed. There’s definitely more readiness to tell these more complicated stories about soil, about ecology. Our customers are really keen on that extra information so I think that’s a real shift. I remember presenting to an environmental group explaining we need a change in the way we farm and eat. They said ‘Yes, of course… but it’s not going to happen.’ Now it feels feel like it is happening, which is quite heartening.”

Flying the flag
As far as Josiah is concerned, there is a public appetite to explore the nitty gritty of food production. “Yes, I think that’s absolutely the case,” he suggests.

“I think [the media] has historically been quite nervous about those complicated stories, believing their readers or viewers or listeners don’t have the attention spans involved in grasping the detail. I think that’s changing as well. It does feel like there’s a much greater degree of interest in the detail of how food is produced too, alongside the quality. I mean it has to be good food…”

Of course, this good food, produced mindfully and priced equitably, costs more than the ‘edible, food-like substances’ (to quote Michael Pollan) that are widely sold in discounters. And amid a cost-of-living crisis and rampant food inflation, pricier foods can be and are being labelled as elitist.

You may be among the very many retailers frustrated that the skilfully and sustainably produced food and drink you sell is seen this way. Butcher Lizzy Douglas, who runs The Black Pig in Deal, Kent, buys whole carcasses direct from her local small abattoir, itself supplied by extensively-run small farms. She works hard to sell every part of the animal and dissuade the unsustainable demand for only prime cuts.

“I do try hard to sure it’s not an exclusive product,” she says. “I try to keep a close eye on prices, and make sure there are always cheaper cuts for sale. I don’t advocate people eating a lot of meat – I think they should eat less but better quality. It bothers me that meat produced this way becomes an elite thing that people don’t feel is affordable.”

Into the mainstream
Extending truly good food to every household, and spreading the regenerative farming practices that create it to every patch of farmland, is the scaling challenge being grasped by Wildfarmed and many more.

This month Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) – arguably conventional agriculture’s biggest meet – convenes to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing its members. According to OFC chair Emily Norton, regenerative principles are very much on the agenda.

“Science just keeps telling us the same message all the time,” she says, “which is that by integrating environment and food production together we get healthier outcomes: healthier ecosystems and healthier communities. It’s not easy for policymakers to do that but increasingly it’s the kind of thing farmers and those thinking about their own production systems are trying to do.”

“Currently we have a food system priced around quantity not quality,” she continues. “It’s a willful blind spot that supply chains are allowed to have; they’re not held to account. It’s up to consumers to decide how healthy and sustainable they can afford to source their food.

“There’s been some work done by the National Food Strategy to look at systemic solutions but it’s entirely the focus of OFC this year to ask ‘where should we be doing things better?’ Rather than ‘let’s make food cheaper in order to help consumers’ it’s about what the real systemic solutions are to that.”

Despite the increasing urgency of our biodiversity crisis, and heightened awareness of farming’s role in climate change resilience, #regenag practices remain fringe. But for how much longer? “We’re commissioning the Oxford Food Conference report to ask the question: how should the conventional agri-food supply chains we see at the moment be regulated?” says Emily.

“At the moment they’re effectively regulated to provide calories safely, but should they be reflecting the need to produce food in an environmentally-positive way as well as produce food that’s beneficial to consumer health and wellbeing?

“The Agriculture Act of 2020 talked about fair dealing with farmers; the question is what does ‘fair dealing’ mean in this new landscape where we have a good understanding of what food security means, we are painfully aware of the links between food and health, and we’re painfully aware of the links between food production and environmental health?

A happy ending
What Emily hints at is shift in the whole food system to embed sustainability – the health of soils, the wellbeing of pollinating insects, a reduction in need for inputs – towards the regenerative end of the farming spectrum.

“We got much better at understanding that in the context of Covid,” she says “when we understood the benefit of small individual acts, like mask-wearing, to make significant change. So personally I feel we shouldn’t premiumise sustainability – it’s something that should be available by default to everybody, at a price point that doesn’t exclude the poorest. At is very definition it’s not sustainable if it’s not for everybody.”

While they wait for the food and drink sector to accept the need for future-proof approaches to food production, regenerative producers and the retailers they supply crack on with the important work of getting their excellent produce to the consumer at a price they’re happy to pay.

“Direct selling and adding value to produce is important to many of our diversified and nature-friendly farms,” says Richard Wheeldon, the National Trust’s senior national consultant on farming systems.

“Being able to articulate the provenance of produce is really important. We’ve supported some farmers with gaining such accreditations as Pasture for Life, Freedom Food and Soil Association status. These recognised industry standards can be really useful to help with sales of produce. 

“Telling a story as part of nature-friendly farming is really important; some of our tenants have great social media to showcase the good work they are doing day-to-day. The direct contact with the consumer creates a great connection to nature and highlights the benefits of the farm on the local environment.”

Passing those stories on to your own customers will bring regenerative methods the attention they deserve, but also highlight the wider wins for the environment and your community that your shop’s products represent.

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