Regenerative Agriculture: How the UK restaurant industry reacts to 'the future of farming'

Egg Soldiers delves into regenerative agriculture, the natural farming system that focuses on improving the health of soils and ecosystems, highlighting pioneers in this space and delivering UK restaurant action points for 2023
Regenerative agriculture
Regenerative agriculture, a holistic and sustainable approach to farming driven by the principles of agroecology, has gained a fair few UK food industry fans in recent years.

Centred around the constant restoration and maintenance of healthy soils and broader farm ecosystems, regenerative farming is said to deliver ranging benefits for both the environment and the food produced, with a growing number of forward-thinking farms and innovators around the world adopting these methodologies to help drive modern agriculture's shift towards a sustainable future.

The need for agricultural evolution worldwide is fairly clear. It's estimated that 70% of global freshwater is currently used for agriculture, which is also said to be directly responsible for 8.5% of all greenhouse emissions.

In the UK, according to a report by the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), agriculture accounted for 69% of total nitrous oxide emissions and 48% of all methane in 2020 – two of the three main greenhouse gases – with the mounting challenges brought about by climate change, including the environmental impact of the global food system, a key concern among consumers and creators alike.

So what exactly are the benefits of regenerative farming techniques, in terms of the environment, the quality of food produced, and consumer perception? What does agroecology entail? And how are regeneratively-farmed ingredients being used on UK plates?
Regenerative agricuture: The lowdown
Image: New Chapter
In a nutshell, regenerative farming techniques mimic and support natural farm ecosystems by incorporating tactics such as crop rotation, cover cropping, and reduced tillage to help build and maintain healthy soil.

This leads to increased water retention, better nutrient cycling, and improved structure, with increased soil health also helping to capture and store carbon in the soil (known as carbon sequestration), mitigating the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the environment.

Regenerative farms either rid themselves of or seriously reduce their use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, often incorporating multiple crops and livestock into a single system to promote biodiversity and help to naturally reduce the risk of pest and disease outbreaks.

This is effectively the principles of agroecology – a sustainable, regenerative marriage between the farm environment and agricultural production systems.

So what of the food quality?

Well, according to a
recent study by the University of Washington, which spans the results of 10 different farms using the above techniques over the last five to 10 years; regenerative farming practices helped produce better quality crops with greater resilience to pests and diseases, and improved yields, leading to the production of nutrient-dense foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients.

Finally, from a consumer standpoint, the combination of health and taste benefits from nutrient-dense food options and clear sustainability credentials from its production practices makes regenerative farming an extremely attractive proposition.

So what are some of the examples of farms employing regenerative tactics, and the UK restaurants now showcasing regenerative ingredients in menu items?

Here's three of each:
Regenerative Agriculture: Three producers

White Oak Pastures' upcoming Regenerative Agriculture workshop
White Oak Pastures in Georgia (USA) raises cattle, chickens, and pigs using regenerative grazing methods. It first transitioned away from industrial agriculture techniques in 1995, beginning to operate its farm as a "living ecosystem".

The livestock at White Oak Pastures are rotated through different pastures to mimic their natural movements, which is said to help improve soil health and reduce erosion.

The farm runs regular educational workshops and events to showcase the benefits of regenerative practices and increase consumer awareness, with an 'immersive introduction' to Regenerative Agriculture coming up in March 2023.
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While not technically a farm, California's Robert Hall Winery is once of a number of examples within the realm of regenerative viticulture (wine growing) – a fast-emerging hot spot for modern innovators seeking to improve traditional wine making methods.

Robert Hall Winery is currently undergoing a three-year comparative study of yield, cost, quality and carbon capture credentials in both conventional and regenerative viticulture.

Set across its 40-acre estate, the purpose of the study is to understand regenerative farming practices and their effect on the vineyards' ability to sequester carbon and overall quality effects on soil, fruit and wine.

And, like White Oak Pastures, Robert Hall Winery is hosting a regenerative-focused event this March, at which it will present vineyard findings from year two of the study, as well as revealing tasting notes from wine made from regeneratively-grown grapes from both years one and two.

The award-winning Daylesford Organic Farm in Gloucestershire is a large-scale regenerative farm producing a variety of crops, including vegetables, fruit and grains, as well as meat, fish and dairy, to be sold on-site and supplied to restaurants and its foodhalls.

"Our livestock plays a very important role in helping to maintain the health of our soils," Daylesford explains on its website.

"Nutrient recycling with the manure from our animals is one of the greatest advantages of mixed farming, so we spread their valuable muck back on to the fields to fertilise our crops.

"This rich manure is a natural and organic way to feed the soil and produce flavoursome, nourishing vegetables, cereals and forage."
Regenerative Agriculture: Three UK restaurants

The popular London restaurant Jolene (and its bakery-focused sister, Big Jo) has been a staunch advocate of regenerative food systems and ethical farming for years, sourcing a variety of ingredients from farms and suppliers championing regenerative techniques and methodologies.

A key supplier for them is Wildfarmed, which works with over 50 farmers to produce regeneratively farmed wheat, with Jolene/Big Jo using its broadening bakery operation to showcase goods made with Wildfarmed grains, from breads to pastries.

"What they're doing is huge," Jolene and Big Jo co-owner David Gingell said of Wildfarmed in an interview with Foodism in 2021.

"I'm proud of our partnership. They're on a mission, and we're on that mission with them. It's the right thing to do. It's the little part we can play."

Burger chain Honest Burgers made waves on the UK hospitality scene last year by announcing it had overhauled its supply chain through the development of a regenerative farming programme, with the aim of reducing its carbon footprint and addressing the environmental impact of eating beef.

Its restaurant estate continues to transition to serve beef exclusively from regenerative farms, with the brand aiming to have the process finished by 2024.

Under its dedicated regenerative farming programme, Honest Burgers now works directly with British regenerative farms, eschewing the industry standard of working with meat processors and abattoirs.

Dishes from M Restaurants Regenuary set lunch menu (Image: @mrestaurants)
M Restaurants, a small group of London grill restaurants, recently developed a regenerative meat-focused set menu in collaboration with British supplier The Ethical Butcher, which is the founder of 'Regenuary' - a social media-led movement launched every January to help spread interest and awareness in the benefits of all things regenerative.

For Regenuary 2023, The Ethical Butcher announced its focus would be on out-of-home eating, with its social channels spotlighting chefs and restaurants aligning their respective menus to the cause in January (and beyond).

M Restaurants' set menu (which it revealed will continue to be available throughout February) includes two dishes featuring beef reared on regenerative farms: the Ethical Beef Yakitori with tare and a yuzu koshu emulsion, and Ethical Steak Frites with Parisien green sauce.
Regenerative Agriculture: UK Restaurant Action Points for 2023
  • Become an educator
    Consumers are becoming more aware of the environmental impact of traditional agricultural methods, with regenerative farming widely deemed a sustainable and healthy alternative to standard farming practices.

    If switching to regenerative ingredients, consider hosting workshops and/or events to help educate your consumers as to the benefits, using social media to help spread awareness, increase understanding and encourage adoption.
  • Partner up
    Like Big Jo/Jolene, who partnered with artisan supplier Wildfarmed to showcase the benefits of regeneratively-grown wheat in the baking scene; consider collaborating with a like-minded producer to specialise in one particular area.

    Be it meat, dairy, vegetables, or even micro-herbs - there's a good chance that consumers will soon consider you part of the sustainable agriculture evolution (and certainly a supporter).
  • Be aware of the challenges
    Implementing regenerative farming practices often requires investment in equipment, infrastructure and new labour, with upfront costs reflected in the price of produce.

    Regulatory hurdles also exist, such as the lack of clear definitions and the need for certification.

    While the benefits seem clear, the regenerative revolution won't happen overnight. Keep abreast of developments and make moves wisely.
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