Alpha Food Labs founder and co-chief executive Mike Lee says that could lead to an unfavourable definition forced on them and farmers losing control of the narrative.
Speaking at an NZX-Beef + Lamb NZ webinar on what regenerative agriculture meant for New Zealand, the US-based food strategist says the debate over what regenerative agriculture is must be a producer-led movement.
He says rather than thinking about the term, people should think about their mental framework around leaving the earth in a better way than when they got here.
“If you can get other people to agree with you and support you on that, then you’ve got a definition,” he said.
He says NZ farmers had an opportunity where they can dictate to brands what regenerative agriculture is rather than what has traditionally been the other way around.
Silver Fern Farms’ (SFF) group marketing manager Nicola Johnston agreed, saying it was a trend that was being positioned to answer concerns around agriculture’s environmental footprint.
Many of the farmers she has spoken to were already doing many of regenerative agriculture’s attributes, but thought they could do more to lower their environmental footprint.
“And that’s what regenerative farming is all about, it’s about that journey of continuous improvement,” she said.
“We do have an opportunity to define it in our image and that’s an exciting opportunity for New Zealand.”
Lee says there was an opportunity for NZ to use regenerative agriculture to be known as a “legendary” food producer akin to Kobe beef, or the way the Bordeaux region is associated with wine.
He says NZ’s unsubsidised farm system also gave it an advantage over others, such as the US and Europe, where subsidies locked farmers into a monoculture farming model.
“New Zealand can go straight to the solution. You can be the example that we follow,” he said.
It was different to other previous sustainable food movements, such as organic, because most were still unaware of the terminology.
Instead, farmers should ask themselves if they believe they should leave the soil and water in a better state than when they found it and have strong, diverse resilient communities and famers that produce it.
“These are all of the tenants of regenerative ag,” he said.
“At the heart of it for me, (the question) is: ‘do you care about the planet and do you care about feeding it in a way that leaves everything better off for our children than we had it?’
“If the answer to that is yes, then you probably subscribe to some form of regenerative ag.”
Johnston says rather than focusing on whether a farm is regenerative or not, it was better to frame it on a spectrum where there was room for continuous improvement.
She says the true value of regenerative agriculture approach will be cracked when farmers find that “sweet spot” in the intersection between a pasture-based farming system and healthy soils that produce a verifiably healthy product.
Johnston says SFF were watching discussions around regenerative agriculture very closely.
“Call it the Greta Thunberg effect or the Attenborough effect, people are becoming more considerate about the impact of their choices around the planet and that’s really extended to food
She says it had all the hallmarks of an enduring trend with large global brands such as Nestle getting on board, which led her to believe it was here to stay.
“We have been actively working on what that means for us,” she said.
Consumers were still largely unfamiliar with regenerative agriculture, but had a list of attributes they wanted around sustainable food production, Lee said.
This put food producers at an advantage where they could shape its concept before consumers ran with it.
“This is very much akin to Steve Jobs the night before he introduced the iPhone,” he said.
During its development, people wanted a phone with email, a map and internet and Jobs created the iPhone out of that, he said.
“That is the exact same thing I think we have with the opportunity we have with regenerative agriculture,” he said.
“People aren’t asking for regenerative ag by name, they are asking for clean soil, food and healthy communities.”