Monday, April 22, 2024

More numbers needed to link regen to better food

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The Holy Grail for regenerative agriculture is proving empirically that food grown in regeneratively farmed soils is healthier than conventionally grown food, with the numbers remaining elusive so far.
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Mike Lee of Alpha Food Labs in New York headed up a global research project on consumers’ views on regen ag on behalf of Beef + Lamb NZ and NZ Winegrowers, with support including $390,000 from the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

Lee presented the project’s initial findings to delegates at the red meat industry conference in Rotorua.

The project canvassed market and consumer views in the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany, gauging consumer understanding and response to the practice.

“At present there is no empirical evidence (of better quality food from regen), but early indications are that it could be true. This is not a narrative that can be sown together today, but something the movement hopes to get to – that would be a big turning point,” Lee said.

He says the work had revealed the regen movement differs somewhat from other past food trends, such as organics.

“It’s a grassroots movement that has been adopted by companies already; institutions have not waited for it to become a mainstream thing before jumping onto it. You have companies like Danone and General Mills in there already,” he said.

General Mills aims to have 400,000ha of regeneratively farmed land supplying it by 2030.

Without the prescriptive demands of systems like organics, regen farming faced a dynamic and undetermined future that meant it was not yet beyond farmers’ ability to influence.

“The producer is at the centre of the conversation and should be the hero of this,” he said.

He cautioned though the practice should not be treated as something new.

The recent Netflix film Kiss the Ground received some blowback from native American landowners for purporting that some regen practices were new, when in fact they had been practiced for generations by indigenous people.

The nuanced aspects of regenerative farming that often differed between farms demanded simpler ways to explain it to consumers, with its subtleties contrasting to more binary techniques like genetic modification.

The market scan research work revealed certification was something of a bug bear with regen farmers, many mistrustful from experience with previous certification requirements.

“It is understandable they could be mistrustful of another. It may be a case of finding something in the middle, some certification where producers have an active role in establishing it, one that still gives consumers peace of mind,” he said.

He suggested an “outcomes” focused certification that gives producers a wide pathway to achieve those outcomes.

“No one seems to like certification except consumers,” he said.

Lee says any certification process should leave room for producers to manage their own land and practices.

He says between one-third and 44% of consumers said they were aware of regenerative farming, somewhat higher than researchers expected.

Trialling some simple communications messages, they found consumers responded well to a positive approach, one where regenerative farming was a key to helping solve climate change.

The “Holy Grail” of a link to soil health and food health was also a good communications pathway, albeit that link was yet to be proved.

Some initial retail research suggested consumers could also be prepared to pay 20% more for regen products.

“But we do need to create stronger links between regenerative practices and promises to food on the plate. It is going to be a lot harder to sell with vague long-term promises – we need to be more visceral than that,” he said.

More details from the research work will be released in coming weeks.

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