A chance periodical purchase on the way to a regenerative agriculture conference in The Netherlands leaves me in a sustainable sandwich spin. By David Burrows.
I am on my way to Amsterdam for the regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems summit, and browsing the magazine rack for something that’ll last the one-hour flight from Edinburgh (Note: Before you jump on my back for flying, I have a booking for the – rather more expensive and extensive – train, overnight bus, train, back). And there it is: Sandwich: the leftovers issue. Right in my sweet spot: green gastronomy. It’s all about food waste and sustainable production. On the cover is Gizzi Erskine – chef, author, journalist, and entrepreneur.
And it was a tenner well spent: regenerative agriculture has been her “geek-out subject” for years, she explained. A quick Google proves as much with stories about her attempts to “make soils sexy” and her work with the Future Food Movement. She also has a partnership with McDonald’s, it seems, and is a (paid up?) fan of its plant burger. “@McDonaldsUK may have been late to the [plant-based] party, but they are definitely the best dressed,” she wrote on a paid for post on Instagram in 2021, adding: “Hate the corporations as you might, the progressive nature of how McD’s has attacked this cause [high quality sustainable food at a low price] is completely admirable.”
I have my own thoughts on that; regardless I buy one of her books too, Restore: a modern guide to sustainable eating, and digest the section on regenerative agriculture. “Red Tractor labels are not a good indicator of higher welfare standards,” she writes, “as they only specify the meat coming from the UK and this meat has to comply with only minimal legal standards.” (The standards were updated in November 2021 but Erskine’s point that this is the lowest mark still stands). She also talks about using retired dairy cows for meat (quite a thing in Spain already, and something to think about as the UK dairy sector target to stop euthanising male dairy cows at birth by the end of the year looms). And she talks about McDonald’s again.
She does refer to cows “farting” – it’s burps that are actually the problem – but she clearly gets that methane is at the heart of the environmental impact ruminant livestock have, and talks of less and better meat, which might rankle with the powers behind the Golden Arches.
My rose-tinted spectacles of Erskine are not for clouding. If I were on Instagram I’d follow her musings – and how she is trying to make all this accessible to the public. Food companies should take note. Because for all the potential of regenerative agriculture there are huge challenges, and among them are: who is going to pay for it; and how can it be communicated to consumers? Both are crucial to mainstreaming this approach (and possibly with little help from the government).
Erskine talks to Sandwich about her plant-based burger pop-up, Filth, for which everything was sourced from a regenerative system. “Whether it was getting the most perfect organic soya from France […] all the way back through to sorting where we got the black pepper from. There were all these little details that people don’t know. And that’s why we never made a fucking penny.”
Can regenerative attract a premium price, or even whether it should, will be a hot debate in Amsterdam for sure. Some brands are already testing the water with regenerative messaging in adverts and on products. McCain is marketing its work on regeneratively-grown potatoes for example, while Marks and Spencer is using flour sourced through Wildfarmed – which has developed regenerative standards for wheat production that promise no pesticides, increased biodiversity, higher farmer welfare and carbon negativity.
Are we getting ahead of ourselves? Should we not be agreeing first on what regenerative agriculture can deliver and ensuring it does so? Some of those we spoke to for a new regenerative agriculture-focused report published next month certainly felt so. The risks of some corporates taking this concept and using it to greenwash are high. The presence of protestors outside the main hall as I arrive reinforces how hard major companies will have to work to reassure their critics that this can be a mainstream movement rather than purely a marketing message.