Photo of speakers at conference
Representatives from Tesco, World Wildlife Fund and McDonald's discuss the role of big business in regenerative farming.

Debate as big food jumps on regenerative wagon

Allowing big food brands to use the term ‘regenerative’ could reduce the benefit to farmers, while others see the benefit of scale and inclusivity.

Tesco, McDonald’s and Honest Burgers’ commitment to regenerative farming is sparking a debate about how big business is helping or damaging the move to sustainable farming.

The involvement of big business could propel regenerative practices into the mainstream but opens the movement to greenwash as it avoids a strict definition.

“Can you market regenerative?” asked head of food transformation at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), Sarah Wakefield, speaking at a session held at farming conference Groundswell last week, on how big business can support regenerative farming.

“The amount of processors saying that their supply chain is regenerative. I wonder what they’re doing differently? Probably nothing,” Wakefield said.

Clare Hill, director of regenerative farming at FAI Farms, a consultancy firm that conducts agricultural research for companies like McDonald’s and Marks & Spencer, said that the lack of clear definition is a double-edged sword.

“Not defining regenerative agriculture is really good because it allows the control to be back in the hands of the farmer and what’s right for their farm and what they’re seeing in front of them,” Hill told Wicked Leeks.

“But when people say there’s no definition, that’s because they don’t like what the real definition is, which is about systems that mimic nature,” she added. “You don’t need any inputs.”

In the same panel, Tesco’s head of environment Anna Turrell said that supermarkets recognise the urgent need to encourage green farming.

“We’re seeing increasing supply chain shocks,” said Turrell. “We’re finding ourselves in the eye of the storm. We need to change the game.”

In another session, Tom Barton from Honest Burgers spoke about how they source their beef from regenerative farms.

Elsewhere, co-founder of Honest Burgers Tom Barton unveiled its regenerative farming scheme in a different session. He acknowledged the potential for greenwash but argued the need for companies to help support farmers shift to different practices.

“I hear a lot of statements that they [companies] can’t back up,” Barton said. “’We work directly with farmers’ is such an overused phrase and rarely is it true.”

He explained that Honest Burgers changed how it made core products in order to be able to work more closely with suppliers.

“We now make a burger with 70 per cent of the carcass, so we can actually partner with farmers,” he added.  

In another session on how to think differently in farming, Andrew Howard, a farmer from Kent, warned against companies trying to monetise regenerative farming: “There are lots of corporations who are claiming to certify and help farmers go regenerative.

“We’ve got to be careful as farmers that we don’t get taken for a ride and they take a bigger slice of the pie.”

Hill echoed this point around farmer income: “Currently eight per cent of the [food products’] value is kept by farmers.

“We need to ask what regenerative business looks like?” Hill asked.

In all this, there is a need for complete transparency, according to Alastair Trinkett farmer and founder of Grassroots Farming, a company that links regenerative farmers to restaurants.

“If we look back in 10 years at why [regenerative farming] didn’t work, it’s because it got watered down,” said Trinkett. “It lost its power.”

2 Comments

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  1. I am not a farmer, just a retired medic who wants to look after his health by eating the best food. Greenwash will be a real danger unless some sort of certification system can be introduced, similar to Fairtrade or Organics.

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    1. I’m so torn. It would be great if it could stay a farmer movement, rather than coopted by companies and their marketing as it’s so much more attractive to conventional farmers. I think if you certify it, you fall at the same hurdles of organics and it remains a niche market.

      The point about regenerative farming is that it’s context specific, so what is best for one farm is very different to another. So this makes it quite tricky to regulate/certify.

      Although the first has just been developed: https://agreenerworld.org/certifications/certified-regenerative/

      It will be interesting to see how it developed. Certainly not the last of this debate!

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