Foodservice Footprint Groundswell-pic Hopes and fears at festival of farming Out of Home News Analysis

Hopes and fears at festival of farming

Groundswell continues to grow in scale and influence but increased corporate interest in regenerative agriculture was cause for caution as well as cheer. Nick Hughes reports. 

You could get a strong sense for the level of business interest in regenerative agriculture just by studying the lanyards of attendees at this year’s Groundswell festival. Representatives from the likes of Nestlé, Unilever, Hawksmoor and M&S rubbed shoulders with farmers, scientists, charity workers, academics and all manner of exhibitors promoting their sustainable farming solutions – from biochar and fermented liquid seaweed to no-till drills and soil carbon calculators.

Groundswell retains its ethos as a show “for farmers, by farmers” but the scale, scope and influence of the event held on the Cherry family’s mixed farm in Hertfordshire grows with each passing year. 

Over 7,000 people attended the eighth staging of the event in June, which this year coincided with the Glastonbury music festival. Standing on the dancefloor amid the throng as Groove Armada co-founder-turned regenerative wheat farmer, Andy Cato, played a late night DJ set, one felt a certain affinity with those preparing to party almost 200 miles away at Worthy Farm. 

There is certainly no shortage of human chemistry at Groundswell but it is biology that takes centre stage. You can embark on a dung beetle safari or dive headfirst (not literally) into the world of living mulches and mob grazing if you so choose. I found myself stumbling upon – and quickly becoming engrossed in – a one hour seminar on soil carbon sequestration which brutally exposed the limits of my GCSE B grade in mixed science.

Yet there were many sessions too that reflected growing corporate engagement with regenerative agriculture, often pitting business leaders on the same panel as some of the UK’s most innovative farmers. And it was in these sessions where – in a constructive and largely respectful way – an emerging tension around the discourse surrounding regenerative agriculture bubbled to the surface.

Tensions mount

In order to scale there needs to be a significant end market for food and drink produced using regenerative practices. Big retailers, caterers and manufacturers provide that market, but they also bring with them an instinct to standardise and control that sits uncomfortably with notions of regenerative agriculture as a flexible, farmer-led movement.

How this tension is resolved – if at all – will go a long way to determining whether regenerative agriculture becomes a new green revolution in the purest sense, unlocking the opportunity to deliver nature- and climate-friendly farming at scale, or simply an excuse for businesses to create another premium tier of food and drink that makes a healthy margin for the retailer but does little to change consumption habits and land use at scale, nor deliver long-term security and sustainability for farmers.

Two sessions in particular demonstrated both the enthusiasm among businesses to support regenerative approaches and the challenges that will undoubtedly lie ahead as levels of ambition (and green claims) grow. One of these explored how regenerative principles can be embedded into global supply chains, while the other asked how hospitality can support regenerative agriculture.

Risks and costs

Joining the first of these panels was Emmanuelle Hopkinson, senior sustainability manager for environment and nature at Marks and Spencer. Hopkinson explained that there is a “really big opportunity for M&S to market and sell regenerative products” but that it is also “complex” with “risks and costs associated” and that M&S wanted to understand “how we work down the chain [….] to support the uptake of [regenerative] practices over time”.

Asked whether there needed to be some rules around use of the term regenerative to give clarity and confidence to consumers, Hopkinson identified a need to make the term “more tangible” for people. As an example, she cited the success of M&S’s partnership with regenerative flour producer Wildfarmed to “link healthier soil to a better quality product” in the form of a range of regenerative bread loaves, with simple consumer messaging underpinned by Wildfarmed’s own standard for regenerative agriculture.

Hopkinson added that over time a more standardised definition would be useful to guard against abuse of the term regenerative and pointed to the value in the work of the Soil Association Exchange (and others) in developing consistent methodologies for measuring sustainable practices.

Picking up the theme, Dorothy Shaver, Unilever’s global food sustainability director, said we need to be careful with our words noting that “it’s not regenerative agriculture until it regenerates”. She expressed concern that prescriptive standards could end up having a limited impact if they forced all farmers to adopt the same practices regardless of their individual context and said it’s imperative that measures of the success of regenerative agriculture focus on outputs such as soil organic carbon, water quality and biodiversity, rather than inputs. 

Standard bearers

Another panellist, Tom Gee, an arable farmer who has given over some of his farm to trial regenerative practices in the growing of mustard for the Unilever-owned Colman’s brand, said he was torn over the desirability of having a standard for regenerative farming. On the one hand Gee was worried about businesses claiming products have been regeneratively produced when there is only “the merest hint” of regenerative practices at the margins. But he equally expressed concern that if “you create a box that says this is regen, we’re going to limit the imagination and ambition of farmers”.

In the absence of a clearly defined standard, as exists for organic for example, third parties have been filling the void. Regenerative agriculture initiative, Regenagri, reported last week that the area of land under its certification tripled from 487,000 hectares in 2022, to over 1.46 million hectares in 2023.

Some businesses, like Wildfarmed and Oatly, have developed their own set of standards to which farmers need to demonstrate adherence. In the case of Wildfarmed, these prioritise flexibility over prescription and are third party verified by Control Union; but the debate over the need for a universal standard or certification, and the extent to which it should be based around inputs or outcomes, will rumble on.

Cost sharing

So too will debate over how the costs of transitioning to regenerative agriculture are fairly distributed and the benefits shared equally along supply chains. Shaver at Unilever said the business has created a €1bn (£0.85bn) fund to be spent on projects related to climate and nature to help finance the transition. Rather than pay a price premium for products, Shaver said the FMCG giant is “funding the process of the transition”, including education and equipment for farmers and support with measurement and reporting. She also expressed Unilever’s belief that the transition should be co-financed along with other businesses who benefit from a shift to regenerative farming like retailers and agri-food companies like Cargill and ADM.

In response, Gee said farmers would need confidence that adopting regenerative practices on a more widespread basis is not going to have a detrimental effect on their farming. “I’m sceptical that two or three years of trials is providing that confidence,” he said, adding that when small scale trials move to field scale “we’re going to have to have a discussion about how that gets funded and ultimately I think we’re probably going to be saying to you guys, ‘how are you going to pay for it?’”.

Hopkinson, meanwhile, used the analogy of a game of snakes and ladders to explain how regenerative farmers “are trying to work their way up the board and every so often you will hit a snake in the form of an impact on yield or quality”. She added that M&S recognised the need to share that risk through a focus on offering longer term contracts, farmer advice and support, and investing in fair price models including those that pay a premium over the cost of production.

High street focus

Money also featured prominently in the high street session which kicked off with a slide from the FAIRR investor network showing a survey ranking key sustainability outcomes sought by companies. Bottom of a list that included improved soil health, carbon reduction and biodiversity improvements was ‘farmer incomes and other economic factors’ prompting one audience member to observe wryly that all of those higher ranked environmental outcomes relied on farmers having a financially viable business. 

You need only look at the number of out of home food businesses now partnering with Wildfarmed – a list that includes Azzurri Group, Pizza Pilgrims, Brakes and Franco Manca – to gauge the high level of interest in regenerative agriculture within the sector. That companies are largely framing their interest around environmental benefit should perhaps come as no surprise given the pressure to meet ESG targets linked to climate and nature and the potential for regenerative farming to deliver against these goals (notwithstanding the fact that farm-level data is currently patchy and inconsistent). Mike Hanson, director of sustainable business at WSH said, “Regenerative agriculture is a significant part of our goal to reduce our environmental impact, whether that’s carbon sequestration, reducing carbon impact [and] reducing methane, but we also have nature targets as well,” adding that the caterer is “hungry to get regenerative products into our business”.

Zero Carbon Forum director Bob Gordon suggested that while businesses within the network are all looking at the potential to change their supply chains to support regenerative agriculture, a key barrier to action was the challenge in “turning a strong qualitative (emotional) narrative into a quantitative narrative” that will persuade boardroom decision makers to make the necessary investments. “If a food company is experiencing risk and volatility in their supply chain can we quantify the extent to which regenerative agriculture will reduce that risk [and] reduce emissions?” he questioned, adding that, “without quantification we’re not going to get to scale”.

Nutrition gap

For all the diversity in subject matter across the two days at Groundswell the question of how regenerative agriculture can support better human nutrition was largely absent. Plenty of farmers spoke passionately about their pride in producing nutrient dense food, but there was little in the way of analysis of whether that food ultimately delivers better nutrition to people – including those who habitually struggle to access healthy options – and the extent to which regeneratively-farmed food retains its nutrition once subjected to further processing.

To-date, discussion of the benefits of regenerative agriculture has largely been decoupled from the debate over the danger of diets high in ultra-processed foods. But as campaigners push for a more systemic, joined-up approach to food policy it seems certain these agendas will soon collide. As Tara Garnett, director of the Table collaboration based at the University of Oxford, asked pointedly from the audience during the supply chain panel session: “Is there such a thing as a regenerative Pot Noodle?”

Is there indeed? Perhaps by the time Groundswell convenes for its ninth edition in July 2025, we will be closer to answering some of the complex questions that surround regenerative farming and its relationship with all of us.

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