There is no unified, single definition of what ‘regenerative agriculture’ is globally. A new report argues New Zealand should step up and craft that definition – and seize the market premiums that could go with it.
New York-based Alpha Food Labs spearheaded a global research project on consumers’ attitudes to regenerative agriculture on behalf of Beef+Lamb NZ and NZ Winegrowers. The Ministry for Primary Industries put in $390,000 from the Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund.
Alpha targeted consumers in the United States, UK and Germany, recruiting ‘conscious foodies’ for two thirds of the survey pool (consumers who are more mindful of what they eat and who are interested in food sustainability) with the other third being people who made less values based and more pragmatic decisions about what food they bought.
Germany’s consumers led the way in terms of those who had heard of regenerative agriculture (44%), compared to the UK and the United States (37% and 36%), but Alpha considered this level of awareness “promising, given it’s a trend in its infancy”.
Almost half of the participants in all three countries answered ‘none’, ‘not sure’ or ‘no-one’ when asked who they most strongly associated with regenerative agriculture, or as having strong sustainability credibility.
Respondents were asked to rank taste, health, cost, environmental sustainability and social factors in order of importance when making a food choice. Across all three countries, and consistent with data from many other consumer insights reports, taste and health were at the top of the list. Taste has a wide margin as No 1.
Environment was most commonly ranked No 3 in the United States and UK, and No 4 in Germany.
Significant price premiums could be achievable if product taste and health outcomes could be linked to regenerative production, with science to back it. The report cites the example of research carried out here that showed increased nutrient density from meat produced in our grass-fed systems.
Alpha’s research found that, at baseline, the level of people willing to pay an average 20 percent more for sustainably produced food was 57% (United States), 40% (Germany), 36% (UK). And willingness to pay more increased when respondents were given more information about regenerative agriculture principles (see table).
Note though – Alpha says that while any increase in willingness to pay is encouraging, “consumers internationally can behave differently in the real world. When weighed against factors like taste or health, an actual willingness to pay can be more difficult to achieve.”
That said, Alpha argues the majority of New Zealand’s sheep and beef farming practices naturally align with key pillars of regenerative products and production. (MPI has defined regenerative agriculture as ‘….a set of practices that in isolation or collectively, may result in improved outcomes for our productive land, freshwater and marine environment, our climate, our animals and for the people that grow and consume our food and fibre products.’)
While no-one would claim all of our farms are applying all of those principles all the time, Alpha says the fact our farming systems are so different from ‘conventional agriculture’, in North America in particular, is an advantage. For the US to change its farming systems, especially feedlot-raised beef and sheep meat, would require massive adjustment.
“The regenerative agriculture movement therefore provides New Zealand with a competitive advantage that will be hard for many of our competitors to replicate at scale.”
The clear warning from the report was that given growing interest globally in regenerative agriculture, New Zealand needs to act before our competitors capture the opportunity.
As well as the principles identified by the MPI definition, co-design with Maori could ensure integration of concepts such as Te Taiao.
“In the absence of clear definitions and shared understanding, there is concern that the term will be greenwashed or co-opted by brands or businesses in bad faith,” the report says. “There has already been backlash against some companies’ use of terms such as ‘regenerative company’.
“This puts the onus on New Zealand to move quickly and take this leadership space. Our inability to work jointly on shared definition and communication has been costly in the past.”
Alpha gave the example of the definition of grass-fed in the US market. “New Zealand lost significant ground to competitors who widened the definition substantially and therefore nullified a potential competitive advantage for our red meat sector.”
Beef+Lamb NZ has said verifiable standards on regenerative agriculture will be needed to link in with international supply chains. They’ve recommended that the red meat sector should continued to develop farm assurance programmes (e.g. NZFAP plus) and consider aligning these with international certifications that already exist, such as California’s Rodale Institute’s Regenerative Organic Certification and/or the Savory Institute’s Ecological Outcome Verification.