Is it safe to start marketing regenerative agriculture yet? By David Burrows.
To recap: recently I ventured to Amsterdam for the regenerative agriculture and food systems summit, buoyed by reading of a kindred spirit in the author, chef and restaurateur Gizzi Erskine – a self-professed “geek” on regenerative agriculture (I am not there yet) and brutally honest when it comes to challenges this presents to foodservice. When she tried sourcing everything for her plant-based burger pop up ‘Filth’ from within the ‘regen’ system they “never made a fucking penny”, wrote Erskine.
On arrival in Amsterdam there was more fruity language. “The bigger the company the bigger the opportunity there is to bring this solution – regenerative agriculture – ‘through the roof’,” said organic dairy farmer Felix Riecken. But they “cannot fuck it up. Humanity cannot afford that.”
That the whole thing kicked off with an energetic, slightly sweary keynote from Wildfarmed co-founder George Lamb probably set the tone. Even one of the Sainsbury’s execs threw in an expletive at one point. But the food system is certainly in a shitty state. Asahi’s CEO warned last month that the weather might get hotter but there won’t be enough cold beer to go around. Something surely has to give.
Step forward regenerative farming – the opportunity, as one speaker put it, to “rewrite the narrative of agriculture”. How food companies communicate to their customers on this issue is the subject of heated debate. Pilots have popped up all over the place (which has kept PR teams busy) and more recently we have seen some TV adverts and YouTube videos featuring barley growers, potato farmers and even a Love Island narrator. Expect there to be happy, grass-munching cows on a screen near you very soon. Or maybe an earthworm wriggling in healthy soil?
This is all about the soil. Or is it? Restoring the earth, working with nature, lowering emissions and minimising inputs all offer huge environmental potential. But true regeneration must span farmer wellbeing and profitability too. As more than one presenter at the summit warned: farmers can’t be expected to “go green if they’re in the red”.
Who will pay for this transition (which can see yields drop in the initial phases) is the question many ask but few are willing to answer. The UK government is unlikely to (Defra apparently doesn’t even like the term regenerative because it sounds ‘too American’). How about food companies? Some interesting financial incentives are emerging but you can bet your bottom dollar it’ll be either end of the chain that foots most of the bill (farmers and consumers), which isn’t sustainable, is it?
“The challenge for regenerative agriculture is that it is often a choice of the producers and retailers – a choice made with best intentions, but not something that has been forced upon them in the same way as energy costs, for example,” says Heiner Evanschitzky, professor of marketing at Alliance Manchester Business School. Supermarkets, food manufacturers and foodservice companies therefore need to explain what value regenerative products provide to customers.
Some of the first regenerative products have emerged on the shelves of swankier supermarkets like Waitrose and Marks & Spencer, a sign that it’s starting out like organic – which has 1.2% market share after 50 years of organic certification. Given it took two decades to thrash out that particular certification you can understand why some believe that isn’t the furrow that regenerative should plough.
Inputs and outcomes
Is it even possible to audit a holistic approach to growing and selling food? Much has been made of where organic fits into regenerative and vice versa. Organic produce can claim to be regenerative, according to the Competition and Markets Authority, but maybe that’s a stretch.
Land to Market, the US-based regenerative agriculture verifier, recently had a go at tackling this thorny topic. “Organic spent decades paving the way for other elevated claims. What it stands for is incredibly important and still imminently relevant. The heroes in that movement are true pioneers; they helped cultivate a world of choice and the idea of a food democracy for consumers. People can choose foods that were grown without prohibited chemicals being applied to the actual foodstuffs themselves or the soil. This matches many people’s values, and that’s a good thing.”
But here’s the but: “Organic takes a step forward to make sure that lands are not further harmed by chemical usage and that humans have a potentially lower risk of harm due to ingested chemicals. It does not demonstrate land health improvement.”
In Amsterdam there was plenty of interest in inputs (and reducing them) but far more in outcomes. The new global frameworkproduced by SAI Platform and leading FMCGs including Nestlé, Danone and PepsiCo – ‘Regenerating Together’ – is geared towards delivering “measurable outcomes in the agriculture sector”. It will also reduce confusion, replication (and, in theory, greenwashing) by aligning everything from the definition and impact areas to the metrics and outcomes.
There are up sides to some kind of verification or at least an “iron-clad definition”, as one brand put it. Consumer acceptance for one: seven in 10 shoppers haven’t heard of the term regenerative, but they like it when they hear more.
At this news, marketers will be chomping at the bit to get involved. Some have started but most are biding their time (I spoke to some in Amsterdam who had no intention of marketing or labelling products just yet). Environmental claims are tough to make these days and ‘ambiguous’ language is to be avoided, according to the green claims code. So, perhaps the message for now is: less of the swearing and more of the specifics, please.