The burger chain is sourcing regeneratively-farmed beef for its restaurants. It’s not easy but the benefits could be considerable. David Burrows reports.
For 10 years restaurant chain Honest Burgers had worked hard on its sourcing of beef; it came from grass-fed cattle living outside, while the farms were British and the breeds were native. “We thought we were doing the best we could be doing,” says co-founder Tom Barton. But it turns out they weren’t.
Around four years ago Barton began questioning the company’s meat sourcing policy, including terms like ‘grass- fed’, and was hit by a number of big questions and concerns. The fact that animals badged as grass-fed could spend a chunk of their lives indoors and be fed soya “hit me very hard”, he tells Footprint for a new report: ‘Better meat for foodservice – 10 businesses rising to the challenge’.
And so started a deep dive into the nuance of beef production and what ‘better’ might look like.
It is a path many foodservice operators are currently treading as they unpick their carbon impacts and determine how best to reduce their indirect (scope 3) emissions, a decent chunk of which will be on-farm and related to livestock. If you are a burger chain reliant on beef then your scope 3 footprint will certainly be big.
Smashing up the supply chain
Barton ended up at regenerative farming – a process with as little impact on the soil and environment as possible, mimicking what would occur in the wild, and restoring the land to full health and productivity. But there wasn’t an off-the-shelf regenerative beef product he could buy. Instead, he had to “smash” the current supply chain model and rebuild it. So that’s what Honest did. As the website describes, “the only way to make sure all our meat is from regenerative farms is to cut out ‘middlemen’ and work with farmers directly”. But farmers rear cows, not cuts, so to work with them, “we have to buy the whole cow. All of it”.
This is a significant change and a big risk – only 70% of each cow is used to make the patties for Honest’s burgers. But the burger chain now has influence over how the farmers are farming and can ensure they’re paid a fair price in return. Producers are incentivised on the “right outputs”, such as soil health, biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions and animal welfare. Farmers get peace of mind when they’re paid a good price. “Farmers are now an integral part of our team – as they always should have been,” notes Barton.
Regenerative farming is certainly showing promise in terms of a reduced environmental impact (though the extent of the benefits is up for debate) and many major food companies are making commitments to such agroecological approaches. However, the economics of how to transition to these completely new approaches will undoubtedly prove challenging.
“You can’t ask farmers all of a sudden to shift everything they’ve been doing for decades,” noted Charlotte Bande, global food and drink sector lead at sustainability consultancy Quantis, recently. “This is going to take time and it’s going to take time for the soil to respond to the new practices.”
Some companies are offering financial incentives to suppliers, while others will be weighing up if costs can be passed on to consumers. Barton said last year that there are no plans to mitigate the financial impact of the venture through increased prices on the menu. Buyers for the 20% of premium cuts, like steak, have been found: Select Meats, Turner & George and The Ethical Butcher.
The latter reports considerable interest in better meat from foodservice and hospitality businesses. “We’re growing rapidly,” explains co-founder and marketing director Glen Burrows. He feels this swell of support for new approaches to farming is a golden opportunity for meat to break down the “over-simplistic narrative” spawned from the plant-based movement. “Giving up eating meat because of factory farming would be like giving up all plants because of palm oil,” says Burrows. “The devil is in the detail.”
That’s why The Ethical Butcher has decided to develop its own standard for the meat it sells. This could spawn something the public can understand easily too, but it’s not straightforward. Understanding of the term regenerative is limited. A questionnaire conducted by AHDB and YouGov in May 2021 actually found that only 14% of British consumers have heard of regenerative agriculture.
A more recent survey of US consumers by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) found that, given the choice, 66% would opt for a standard breakfast cereal rather than a more expensive one labelled ‘grown with regenerative agriculture’. Testing of the ‘regen ag’ concept with consumers has shown that they hear something positive but don’t really understand what’s behind it. Placing an Ethical Butcher badge on a burger can also draw unwanted attention to other ‘unbadged’ ingredients and meats on the menu.
For Honest, the main forms of communication are currently the micro site (honestfarming.co.uk) and a booklet ‘Could do better’ which features on every table in its restaurants. So far, six of its 43 restaurants are dishing up burgers made with regenerative beef from three farms via the Grassroots Farming collective. Co-founder of the collective, Alastair Trickett, says it took two years of groundwork to determine what a new supply chain from birth to burger might look like. “We can all make grand statements,” he explains, “but we need to get down to the nuts and bolts of what’s going to move us from where we are to where we need to be.”
Whether (and how) to standardise or certify regenerative products is a live debate. It could help reassure customers but whether such systems fit into neat auditing boxes is unclear. Grassroots has its own set of standards that are in tune with regenerative concepts such as feeding animals mainly grass (not imported soya), improving soil health, creating new habitats, using livestock within arable rotations, encouraging biodiversity and minimising the use of chemicals and pesticides. This is not organic farming: rather than instruct farmers what not to do, Grassroots’ approach is farm-specific, allowing producers to focus on changes that have the most benefit. Data is collected and independently audited; the results from such schemes will be closely watched and scrutinised.
EIT Food, a European food innovation initiative, is working on finding some of the “proof points” in these systems through its regenerative agriculture revolution project. There are “strong indications” that regenerative agriculture soils and crops are much more resilient vis-à-vis extreme weather events, according to EIT CEO Andy Zynga. There is also talk of healthier soils, fewer chemicals, more biodiversity – and even more nutritious products, he told Just Foodrecently.
For Barton, regenerative is all about continuous improvement, so the direct relationship with farmers also means progress can be tracked. As well as monitoring the environmental and ecological benefits of the meat being produced work will soon start on measuring the impact the changes have on the nutritional quality of the beef. “We’re getting some good data and some good patterns and I really think we could be leaders in this space,” says Barton.
Its old system involved buying meat from more than 300 farms a week and the company had little power to influence them to shift to regenerative systems. As the new scheme is rolled out to all restaurants by 2024 the number of farms supplying Honest is expected to rise to about 25, “which is a completely manageable number of farms to really have traceability, really understand and know the farmer and know the system”, says Barton.
Trickett says he has farmers lining up to supply through his collective. Restaurants, caterers, pubs and hotels are the “missing link”, he suggests. “It’s not just about buying your beef and saying that this is now regenerative. It’s about thinking differently. It’s about the power and the privilege that your business has to make a change.”