Earlier this year before lockdown B+LNZ announced its intention to conduct research into consumer attitudes to red meat produced using regenerative agriculture practices.
This project has now been bolstered by an injection of financial support from MPI’s Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund and the involvement of the wine industry’s Bragato Research Institute which is keen to discover any potential for improving vineyard management, as well as evolving brand messaging across the wine industry.
B+LNZ’s purpose in conducting the research is to discover what RA, and as a result, the food produced from it mean to consumers in three major markets for our beef, lamb and venison. The research will explore the attitudes of consumers, retailers and experts in the USA, UK and Germany to identify how or if it can be defined in the New Zealand context, whether it can produce a premium and, just as relevant, what it implies for producers. An essential objective will be to determine how far current farming practice in this country conforms to the perception of RA in each of these markets.
Project leader Hugh Good wants to allay any fears the project will lead B+LNZ to push its levy paying farmers into unprofitable activities; in contrast he is concerned to ensure we capture any early mover advantage, given how closely aligned New Zealand farming practices are with the RA philosophy.
A coalition of big corporates has emerged including Google, Danone, Nestle, Walmart and Unilever to scale up RA, while General Mills has pledged to apply regenerative methods to one million acres, equivalent to a quarter of their production, by 2030. The concept is clearly gaining serious traction in the Northern hemisphere, especially the USA, another driver for conducting the research which will enable New Zealand agriculture, food and wine production to keep up with developments.
Meat companies Silver Fern Farms, ANZCO Foods and First Light are supportive of the project, with First Light’s Sustainability Manager, Nicola Morgan, on the steering group. First Light supplies branded products to 500 retail stores, as well as directly to 400 high net worth individuals who, Morgan says, are seeking certainty what they buy has not been mass-produced by mainstream US food producers. New Zealand producers are in the process of building a reputation for grass-fed, antibiotic and GMO free red meat (think Taste Pure Nature) and these consumers want reassurance it is produced in a way that protects and enhances natural resources.
ANZCO’s Lynsey McQuinn summarises her company’s position as wanting to understand firstly the extent of consumer demand for regeneratively produced products, secondly if they can command a sufficient premium, and thirdly how to position products to appeal to the consumer. However she also asks whether it is economical to farm regeneratively and what the economies of scale would be. To be viable, outputs must satisfy a consumer need, be environmentally sustainable and lastly return a profit to the producer.
RA means different things to different people in different countries, although it appears to have the highest profile in the United States where soil health in the prairie states is poor; improved soil health and carbon sequestration have been achieved by regenerative practices such as non-tilling, crop rotation, cover crops, reduced impact grazing and avoidance of synthetic fertiliser application. Claims regenerative is the same as organic farming are not correct however, with regenerative being more a philosophical approach and organic more about processes and certified inputs, although consultant and Soil Integrity director Nicole Masters says there are farmers practising both. She calls this ‘deep organics’ while ‘shallow organics’ farmers tick the boxes without deep ecological thinking or redesign of their ecosystems.
According to Masters, the definition of RA is deliberately fuzzy because it encourages innovation and discourages dogma; regenerative farmers work constantly to improve their systems, but never believe they have achieved perfection. She also discounts suggestions New Zealand’s agricultural practice already conforms to regenerative principles, saying there is still plenty of room for improvement.
That said, there are a number of similarities between the way we farm in New Zealand and what appears to fit within the definition of RA. In last spring’s Fertiliser Review, soil scientist Dr Doug Edmeades compared New Zealand’s pastoral system with six elements of the RA concept – rotational, planned in situ grazing, closed systems, perennial crops and pastures, building soil organic matter, encouraging biodiversity and the health of soils, plants and animals – and concluded that it looked very much like RA in practice.
B+LNZ chairman Andrew Morrison says lots of soils have deficits which must be replaced by a range of inputs such as fertiliser which is essential to restore soil health; in his opinion farming must always be informed by science. Louis Schipper, Professor of Soil Health at Waikato University, maintains RA has no set recipe and can be difficult to justify from a scientific perspective, with its proponents claiming the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
Good believes New Zealand has a better starting point for regenerative claims than most other countries where farming systems and conditions are much further behind. The research will provide an opportunity to find out what the target markets want and the value consumers ascribe to it, enabling the appropriate marketing messages to be defined and tested. Good agrees any market positioning must be consistent with Taste Pure Nature which is already gaining exposure in California.
The major questions with the concept are is whether it is possible to market New Zealand red meat and wine, produced using similar farming practices, under an RA umbrella which has no clearly defined set of principles, the added value that can be achieved, and what further changes to farming methods are necessary.
Current schedule and saleyard prices are available in the right-hand menu of the Rural section of this website.