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Can regenerative farming create a sustainable future that doesn't involve quitting meat?

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Hospitality can lead the way in promoting better ways of eating

If one good thing comes out of the last twelve months, it will be that many folks rediscovered the joy of shopping locally. Buying from independent stores or by supporting their favourite food businesses online.

And it goes without saying that much depends on this shift in behaviour not only outliving the pandemic. But continuing to proliferate.

Food businesses and brands continue to evolve at a pace. As competition increases and consumers demand more. We’ve seen a shift, possibly accelerated by Coronavirus, in two specific areas.

Health. And veganism.

But somewhere along the way, it seems that - aside from some notable ‘vegan junk food’ exceptions - the two became implicitly conjoined.

A Rush to Save the Planet

This year, ‘Regenuary’, a growing movement, is vying for attention - and eating habits - on the merits of regenerative farming.

A practice that seeks to farm more holistically. Promoting soil health, biodiversity, and the environmental benefits that follow.

The crux of this argument is that meat production can be a sustainable - even carbon negative - part of the system.

Veganuary got Cancelled

This unintentionally provocative Instagram post was where it all began. Debunking Veganuary’s claims that any vegan diet is better for you and better for the planet.

And then the inevitable happened. A polarised argument ensued.

In these times of “cancel culture”, I asked the author, Glen Burrows, from The Ethical Butcher if the strikethrough, in hindsight, was slightly misjudged.

“I’d use the same graphic [if I had the chance again]. But would change some of the wording. I think speaking in absolutes was dangerous.

“We didn’t expect it to be quite so incendiary though. I thought people might be a bit upset, but wanted to start a conversation”.

From a strategic standpoint, this presents an interesting case study.

Provocation and polarisation can sometimes work in a brand or movement’s favour. In the sense that it talks clearly to a specific audience and gets a message out there.

But it’s often better to take a gentler approach. One that promotes healthy discussion and education. I sense from our conversation, that this was Glen's intention.

When asked if he’d be happy to join forces with Veganuary, he was very open to the idea.

“I’d love to and would happily talk to them. Because we should agree with 95%. But they need to change their tack and retract their key statement.

“They need to concede on the point that ‘not eating meat is the only way to save the world’."

The Misinformation Machine

Veganuary’s key messaging is undeniably factually incorrect.

In an age of transparency, consumers expect trust from the brands they support. Veganurary are in position of responsibility. And they’re going to want to re-look at their positioning if they’re going to increase their reach.

“Our vision is simple: we want a vegan world” the website states.

“A world without animal farms and slaughterhouses. A world where food production doesn’t decimate forests, pollute rivers and oceans, exacerbate climate change, and drive wild animal populations to extinction.”

“For almost every animal-derived ingredient and product, there is now a vegan alternative, and this means that a vegan’s meal may look and taste exactly like a non-vegan’s meal, it just doesn’t come with the animal suffering or the same environmental impact.”

To use a technical term. This is bollocks.

Ok. Let me qualify that slightly. From the perspective of animal cruelty and welfare, there’s no argument here. And if that’s your reason for going vegan. Good on you.

But. Don’t for one second be misled by the statements on health and environmental impact. These have nothing to do with being vegan.

According to their own website, 56% of Veganuary supporters cite health and the environment as drivers for participating.

You don’t have to look hard to realise that a vegan diet that doesn’t question where and how food is produced, is much worse for the vegan and the planet than an omnivorous diet that does.

This misleading oversimplification must not be overlooked.

The Middle Ground

To be clear. I’m not criticising all elements of Veganuary’s mission. Nor the genuine care and passion that is at the heart of the movement. Neither am I criticising veganism itself.

The two sides may be polarised on the animal vs. no animal argument. But there’s plenty of common ground which is where the conversation should be focused.

Whether you’re a Veganuary advocate or a budding regenerative farming supporter. The mission here should be simple. Produce food in a way that not only protects but repairs the planet. Whilst protecting our own health, too.

It’s unhealthy to obsess over - and be critical of - something that’s inherently better than the current alternatives.

Dig Deeper. Just dont Disturb the Soil

In terms of the overall climate crisis. If we stopped 100% of greenhouse gas emissions today, we’d still have to deal with the "legacy load" of 1,000 billion tons remaining in the atmosphere. Continuing to heat the planet for decades. Possibly even centuries.

To address this. We need to look at a cyclical, not linear, consumption model. In every area of our lives.

In this interview, Nick Jeffries from The Ellen McArthur Foundation made the point that “we can’t expect our economy to continue to thrive if it relies on the continual consumption of finite resources. We’ve got to decouple from this”.

Regenerative agriculture seeks to do just that. Rolled out at scale, we could see a large part of our legacy load sequestered back into the soil as part of a process called Carbon Drawdown. The potential for positive impact is quite extraordinary.

I’ve listed some resources for further reading at the end of the article, but here’s the situation in a nutshell -

Poor farming practices decimate soil health. Leaving enormous swathes of land uncovered and unable to capture and store carbon in the atmosphere.

As soil health deteriorates, more and more chemicals are needed to grow crops. Over time, the soil dies. Every year, a landmass the size of the UK is abandoned as it become completely useless.

The cost of farming increases due to the quantity of inputs (pesticides and chemicals) needed to produce a crop.

Government subsidies go towards supporting industrial farming when they could (and should) be used to support better practices.

"Only 1% of the $580bn of US farming subsidies is spent on good things”, according to Nick.

Amongst other things, this leads to food poverty for the very people who produce what we eat.

Then. As we move onto virgin wilderness, we damage more land and destroy its biodiversity. It's become a vicious cycle.

The Cycle Continues

Regenerative farming has the potential to change this. And do so now. Whilst there is a degree of complexity involved for the geeks amongst us. The principles are very simple -

1. Don’t disturb the soil (and release the carbon) through tilling and ploughing

2. Keep the land covered all year round to allow for continuous photosynthesis

3. Replace mono-crops with rotational crops

4. Re-introduce and nurture biodiversity (yes, including livestock)

Healthy soil with cover crops captures extraordinary amounts of carbon. Fast forward 26 minutes into film Kiss The Ground to find out just how well.

Properly managed regenerative farms are actually reducing the greenhouse gases in the environment. And need no inputs either. The soil is so healthy and full of organic matter. Growing thriving plants and feeding healthier people.

And as part of the right rotation, livestock plays a huge part. Grazing, trampling, and peeing and pooping as they go.

The Task is Surmountable

Where we stand today, the entire food system is out of sync. We must align farmers’ decisions with ecological and profitable ones.

Only 5% of farming is currently done regeneratively. This means 95% is actively damaging in some way.

The UK government provides our farming community with 60% of its income, just so it can remain competitive. We can’t have regenerative agriculture without regenerative business.

Statistics around industrial agriculture make for more positive reading. Contrary to popular belief we don’t actually need it to feed the world. We need it to feed animals.

Madelyn Postman from Grain Sustainability confirms this. “Only 30% of industrially-farmed products end up on our plate. The rest goes to animal feed and biofuel”.

Madelyn believes that even the most committed omnivores need to be reducing their meat intake. And focus on quality.

Going on to say that “there’s not enough ethically produced meat to feed the world at the moment. So the only answer is for people to cut back. We can’t have chickens that cost a pound or a market that expects this”.

The world is less reliant on industrial farming than we think. With 70% of the foot eaten globally coming from farms under ten hectares.

And whilst this is likely to vary dramatically between countries. On a global scale, the conversion is possibly simpler than on initial inspection. Especially when you consider that eliminating the need for inputs dramatically reduces costs.

As ever, the change will be driven by consumers. With governments around the world slow to act on the climate crisis. This requires the right information to be out there so people can make informed choices.

Madelyn believes that improved labeling would be a great place to start. Allowing consumers to understand the effect their food choices have on the planet. As well as their health.

“You could easily be a vegan and have a higher carbon footprint than an omnivore.

“Food labeling is a big issue. Whilst you can see from the label where the food is from, and make an assumption about how it’s been processed and transported, you can’t be sure. It requires consumers to dig a little deeper.

“I love the idea of labeling so that you can clearly see the impact the products you’re buying [have on the planet]. The key will always be to eat seasonally, locally, and organically as much as possible.”

Beware of the Bandwagon

Veganuary is being exploited by the food industry. As supermarkets increasingly stock mass-produced, processed, and unhealthy foods. Selling these to an uninformed audience.

None of this deals with the underlying issues and messaging that it’s not meat production that’s bad. It’s how that meat is produced. And that the last thing we need is more processed food in our diet.

Summary

Want to go vegan? Great. Caps doffed. But look further. Look deeper. Ask more questions and do more research.

Because a blindly vegan diet, devoid of the facts about how and where that food is produced, is not going to do you or the planet any favours.

And if you’re going to continue to eat meat. That’s fine, too. But do it less and do it locally. Make sure the animals you’re eating were reared as part of a cyclical, bio-diverse, and regenerative process.

And then whichever camp you’re in, you’ll be going a long way towards a healthy planet. Creating a positive effect on the climate through the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Not just halting future emissions.

Nick Jeffries put it succinctly as part of his closing thoughts for this webinar.

“For the first time in our lives, we saw supermarket shelves empty and that should be a wake-up call.

“We can’t rely on global supply chains and big business to deliver everything we need. We don’t all need to become vegan. But we do need to understand how our food is produced. To over-simplify things is to miss the point”.

Maybe Veganuary should have more in common with Regenuary than they do? If they get their facts straight, their message right, and come in from the extreme of the argument.

Because questioning the ethics of eating quality meat a couple of times a week vs being vegan asks the wrong questions. Imagine what could happen if both sides worked together.

Most of us will remember the time when the food and hospitality buzzwords were fair trade, organic, seasonal. Could 2021 be the year regenerative farming becomes common parlance?

The basis of conversations with guests and customers. Eager to understand more and how they can support the movement.

And who knows. Maybe January 2022 will be the year when folks can support both Veganuary and Regenuary at the same time.

Footnote

Glen is a fountain of knowledge and statistics when it comes to both reiterative farming and the part animals must play in this. Read on to learn more.

References

https://veganuary.com/
https://kissthegroundmovie.com
https://gather.film
https://farmerama.co
https://www.ellenmacarthurfoun...
https://www.instagram.com/abby...