Regenerative farming: only one person knows what it means (hint: it’s not you)

by | Oct 11, 2021 | Opinion

A new report by Beef and Lamb NZ sheds fresh light on the role that regenerative farming could play in growing our primary sector exports. The news is encouraging. Conducted by US food researcher Alpha Food Labs, the report shows that ‘conscious consumers’ in Germany, the UK and the US have a strong appetite for sustainable foods – and are even hungrier for foods labeled regenerative.

“After learning about the benefits of regenerative agriculture, the proportion of consumers willing to pay 20% or more increased in the United Kingdom and Germany, as well as the proportion willing to pay substantially more (i.e. 30% more) at least for the United States and Germany.”

That’s great news.

Now, if we could only agree on one thing – what does regenerative actually mean? Despite the rapidly growing use of the term among producers and the screeds of research and commentary in New Zealand, regenerative farming is a largely meaningless term. It has no scientific definition, sets no industry standards, is not managed by an approved body and, here’s the kicker, is unknown by consumers.

For Greenpeace it means fewer cows. For many farmers it means doing what they’ve always done. For marketers it’s a fancy way to say sustainable. Traditionally, it refers to restoring US soil degraded by overuse.

As the report itself says: “One of the main challenges to realising the regenerative agriculture opportunity is that ‘regenerative’ itself lacks a clear definition. Regenerative agriculture has its origins in the United States and as a response to severely degraded soils from intensive cropping. Over the last few years the conversation about what regenerative agriculture is has shifted considerably and broadened out. It means different things in different countries.”

The turf war over definitions spilled into Twitter this month, with Greenpeace harrumphing that the word had been stolen by – spit! – farmers. “Can’t steal what you can’t define,” came the retort.



We can argue about definitions and standards – and, oh boy, we will – but in the end, the proof of the regenerative pudding is in the eating. That is, the ultimate arbiter of its meaning to New Zealand will be the consumer.

The report correctly anticipates this and took the trouble to test six ways of asking the consumer to define regenerative in a way that means something to them. You don’t need a marketing degree to know which of these six resonated the most:

  1. Heal the planet: ‘Regenerate agriculture, regenerate the planet’
  2. Avoid disaster: ‘Regenerative agriculture: a solution to climate change’
  3. Sustainable hedonism: ‘Healthier soils mean healthier, tastier food’
  4. Support a farmer-led movement: ‘Farmers know best’
  5. Renewal done right: ‘(Re)Generative farming’
  6. Te Taiao: regenerative agriculture meets Māori culture: ‘Regenerative agriculture in Aotearoa (New Zealand) is Maori agriculture: Te Taiao’.


That’s right, it’s number three: sustainable hedonism. Shopping is a self-centred action and people buy with half an eye and half a stomach.

In the webinar that accompanied the launch, the report’s author Nick Lee defined New Zealand’s challenge well. “Can you show a direct link between farming that’s better for the planet and food that’s better for the consumer? Can you connect the altruistic to the hedonistic? If we can reduce emissions and create richer, healthier soils that’s great. But for it to sell you also need to show that it creates a better food and taste experience.”

And there’s the rub. For regenerative farming to mean anything for New Zealand it needs to be more than labeling, more than storytelling. and more than definitions. It needs to mean something to the consumer.

What a terrific challenge.


About the Author

Vincent Heeringa

Hi, I'm Vincent! I'm a co-founder of The Feed, a writer, marketer and PR expert specialising in food, tech and sustainability. In a previous life I was publisher of Idealog, Stoppress, NZ Marketing and Good magazines and helped establish the Science Media Centre. I'm also the host of a podcast ‘This Climate Business’. When I'm not burning the midnight oil, I'm hitting the town or planting trees with my wife Sarah. Ping me to talk about all things food. @vheeringa

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