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Meat bites back

Regenuary is a provocative alternative to Veganuary. But can it encourage a more nuanced debate about ‘better’ meat? David Burrows reports.

In the past couple of years Veganuary has hogged the headlines as Brits promise to give up meat and dairy products in the first month of the year. In 2021, half a million had reportedly done so by January 5th.

How many stick with it is moot. Research by Elmlea Plant, a range of plant-based dairy products, suggested the average consumer would struggle to make it past January 8th. Cheese is the product most likely to tempt them. Eggs and pancakes are also hard to resist; as are fish and chips, roast chicken and bacon sandwiches.

Maybe they don’t realise how great the alternatives are, suggested Elmlea. Plant-based products have certainly come a long way in the past 18 months or so, with some admittedly indistinguishable in taste. “… going vegan doesn’t have to mean missing out,” said a spokesperson (though for cheese the plant-based alternatives are limited, pricey and not terribly tasty, according to recent research by the EU-funded smart protein project).

Still, replicating a roast chicken might prove tricky. And bacon sandwiches are just not the same. Some meat alternatives can also be pretty unhealthy – an issue that has bubbled up a number of times but will become high profile this year as more fast food giants join the plant party.

So how about a little bit of better meat (or cheese)? This is the thinking behind Regenuary – an idea that was punted into social media by the Ethical Butcher in January 2020. Some were inspired. Others were infuriated. “As we import things such as avocado and soya-based fake meats to attempt to fill the gaps what impact are we actually having? Are we saving the planet? No,” the meat company posted on Facebook.

This year Regenuary has been getting even more traction. “Last year it blew up and died away,” the company’s marketing director Glen Burrows tells Footprint. This year things “went crazy. There was way more interest from the press.”

But what is it? The concept behind Regenuary is simple, Burrows explains. “For a month, consider the impact of everything you eat and try to source as much as possible from regenerative agriculture, regardless of whether your diet is vegan or omnivorous.”

That isn’t easy – as Burrows readily admits. Despite many farmers “doing regenerative things” very few products are labelled “from regenerative agriculture”. Shortcuts for now therefore include “organic, biodynamic and buying direct from small producers”. British is also best, according to the Ethical Butcher website.

For better or worse?

As you can imagine, there is lots to unpick here: from the extent of the benefits of regenerative agriculture to its definition. Currently there is no legal definition, and until there is it’s open to abuse and hard to defend (vegans have already called out some of the Ethical Butcher’s claims).

Certifications are beginning to emerge though. In the US, there is the ‘land to market’ verification seal. Launched by the Savory Institute, it’s been billed as the “world’s first verified regenerative sourcing solution for meat, dairy, wool and leather”. Measurements on everything from carbon sequestered and increases to wildlife populations to solar energy captured and water recycled are collected and rolled into a score, which is tracked over time. This is about quantifying improvements, “healing” the land and showing how livestock can also be part of the solution to climate change.

There is some progress being made in the UK too, where the likes of the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT), the Soil Association and the Cool Farm Alliance have joined Regenagri, the recently established global regenerative agriculture initiative.

Some see this movement as a chance to defend the livestock industry against calls to slim it down in order to meet net zero targets. The UK government’s advisors at the climate change committee have, for example, proposed a 20% shift away from meat and dairy products by 2030, with a further 15% reduction of meat products by 2050.

“…when it comes to land use, farming and food, in my opinion, they [the CCC have] got it completely wrong,” explained SFT founder Patrick Holden in a recent blog. “…it seems to me that their recommendations have not benefitted from any significant engagement with that section of the farming community who are 100% committed to a transition to regenerative farming systems.”

This isn’t a call to maintain the status quo though. Holden talks of regenerative agriculture at a national rather than niche scale, which could potentially make “a very significant contribution towards meeting emission reduction targets”.

Could this be the ‘better’ meat that experts have been scratching their heads about for a number of years? Possibly.

Plant provocation

Regenuary has been pitched directly against Veganuary. The social media posts in January 2020 were certainly (and perhaps deliberately) provocative. Burrows admits he’d become frustrated by the likes of Dominos, KFC and other fast food giants jumping on the vegan bandwagon. The perception was that meat was bad – but only for a month.

“Up to 84% of people who try veganism are likely to fail,” Burrows explains. “If I am returning to [meat and dairy] what do I return to and what is better? I just want everyone to ask more questions.”

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) has also gone head-to-head with the vegan campaigners. It recently ran a six-week, £1.5m TV-led campaign in what it calls a “graphic equaliser” in the debate around diets – and specifically meat and dairy consumption. The aim was to “extract” the UK from global arguments and debates and “some of the misnomers and mistruths”, explained the board’s head of marketing Liam Byrne in a recent podcast. “Red meat and dairy produced in the UK is amongst the most sustainable in the world,” the consumer-facing website claims.

The target, following extensive consumer polling and focus group work, was the ‘waverers’ – those most likely to be reducing their consumption of livestock products. Readers of The Guardian are apparently “three times more likely” to be reducing their intake of meat and dairy, according to AHDB head of marketing Liam Byrne, so they’ve been hit with full-page adverts recently.

Previous AHDB research has shown that 35% of British households are actually “unwittingly” rather than “consciously” cutting back on meat and fish products. “They’re not turning away on purpose so there is a chance to re-engage them with the category,” explained AHDB senior retail insight manager Kim Malley.

Will this new campaign do that? Time will tell but it’s not really moving the debate on. During the podcast, AHDB representatives couldn’t resist digs at campaigns like Veganuary, or as they put it: “a week of eating cabbage soup”. There were also references to “ordinary food” and “fads”. Vegans have hit back (here and here). It’s easy to see this fuelling social media spats rather than encouraging reasoned debate.

A campaign to encourage eating meat during a crisis in which infectious disease experts and climate scientists have warned of the need to reduce consumption of meat in order to reduce the risk of future pandemics also seemed ill-timed.

Mind you, research by Mintel last month showed breakfast and barbecue favourites like bacon (sales up 18%), sausages (up 20%) and burgers (up 26%) were back in favour last summer. The setback to plant-based products would however only be temporary, said Mintel global food and drink analyst Edward Bergen. In time, the pandemic will serve to make the benefits people associate with eating less meat “even more relevant and important”, he explained.

Meat, but not more meat

AHDB’s campaign, like Regenuary’s, is designed to get into “the nuance” of such debates. But as Juliane Caillouette-Noble, MD at the Sustainable Restaurant Association, suggested in a blog on the topic, the choice shouldn’t be one or the other. She suggested the answer lies somewhere in between.

“It is true that intensive farming is destroying our soil and has devastating consequences for the planet, wildlife, and people,” she wrote. “It is true that raising animals can be part of a regenerative solution, and a route to better agriculture. It is also true that we eat too much meat, and that no matter how you cut it, we need to reduce our consumption.”