Public perceptions around food are changing. As more people understand the impact their food choices have on the environment, many consumers are eager to support those who produce food that is not only better for their health, but also for the planet.
But with the proliferation of green certifications, labels and marketing claims, consumers are uncertain about sustainability generally. And the lack of transparency and consistency around these claims has left consumers confused and distrustful about which agricultural products are truly sustainable.
In the world of food production, regenerative agriculture has been touted as an untapped solution to the climate crisis. Using a holistic approach to farm management, regenerative agriculture aims to preserve the health of the soil, water, livestock, biodiversity and people of the farm for generations to come, while also serving as a critical means of carbon sequestration.
Unlike other designations, such as certified organic — which, in countries around the world, comes with legal frameworks — there are no regulatory or legal definitions for regenerative agriculture. Scientists and farmers widely acknowledge it includes production practices like cover-cropping, low-till farming, and rotational grazing that improve ecosystem health while sequestering carbon, as well as utilizing nature to its best extent.
Many consumers have heard about the benefits of regenerative agriculture. But with no set standards or measurements for impacts and outcomes, the farmers and ranchers utilizing these practices are working to understand the ecosystem and adapt their approach without set guidance. Meanwhile, brands are challenged to educate and engage a consumer base that may be confused or even skeptical.
While the concept and practice of regenerative agriculture is spreading around the world, New Zealand is one country that has long utilized these practices. Thanks to the island nation’s advantageous climate and landscape, coupled with the local culture and commitment to sustainability, many farmers and ranchers have been following the practices of regenerative agriculture for decades, and are on a path of continuous improvement.
“Regenerative practices like rotational grazing caught on here in New Zealand in the 1960s,” said Pat Maher, CEO of Atkins Ranch, a network of family-run ranches raising grass-fed lamb. “All of our farmers operate through a rotational grazing model. What we're working on now is actually making sure that we can verify those farming systems.”
The standardization and labeling of regenerative practices would help farmers and ranchers implement and market these practices to their customers. “Ensuring regenerative standards and the environmental outcomes can be independently audited and verified is critical to creating trust between farmers and consumers,” said Nick Beeby, general manager market development at Beef + Lamb New Zealand.
Further, regenerative standardization at the global level would amplify the efforts of the farmers and ranchers who have been utilizing these principles for generations. Many of the ranchers within the Atkins Ranch network, for example, are fifth- and sixth-generation farmers whose families have been raising livestock on their land for over 150 years.
“When we talk about these standards with our farmers here in New Zealand, it's not that we are asking them to do anything different — they've been implementing regenerative practices and focusing on continuous improvements for a long time,” Beeby continued. “Regenerative verification means we're now asking them to prove it and the environmental outcomes.”
Standardization and communication of regenerative practices and outcomes will help both consumers and producers better support the products of this system, but that’s not the only benefit of setting a verified standard. Defining regenerative agriculture has positive implications for the entire food supply chain, as stakeholders from retailers and manufacturers to consumer brands set their own environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals.
An industry-wide consensus on regenerative agriculture would not only allow retailers and brands to provide their customers with the sustainable products they’re looking for, but it would also help them to fulfill their own sustainability commitments.
Further, standardization and consistent labeling will ensure that the term “regenerative” can no longer be misused as a vague and greenwashed marketing term. By eliminating customer confusion and amplifying the sustainable practices of farms like those in New Zealand and others around the world, standardization can help make regenerative agriculture a global movement.
While industry-wide standardization is necessary to elucidate these practices to retailers and consumers, the establishment of these standards inherently presents a critical challenge: Regenerative agriculture, at its core, is regional — each farm must adapt to its own landscape and environment under the guidance of the farmer who knows what is best for the farm and the land.
However, this inherent regionality ultimately helps define regenerative agriculture for what it truly is: a local, community-based solution to a global climate crisis. Some voluntary verification programs, such as the U.S.-based Savory Institute’s Land to Market, aim to take local distinctions into account by measuring desired outcomes, rather than requiring the very same practices to be adopted on every farm.
Atkins Ranch was one of the first companies in the world to join Land to Market, and is working with the New Zealand government to get more farmers verified.
"This project will help open up a new opportunity for more of our farmers to demonstrate the good work they're doing,” Steve Penno, director of investment programs at New Zealand’s Ministry for Primary Industries, said in an October statement. “And with a few tweaks, they can be rewarded for it.”
This article series is sponsored by Beef + Lamb New Zealand and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image courtesy of Beef + Lamb New Zealand
L. Blaine Fulmer is a freelance writer focused on sustainability communications, policy and stakeholder engagement.