The opening and closing sessions we attended at EAT today were book ends on regenerative agriculture in amongst a shelf of plant based solutions.
It turns out agro-ecology and regenerative agriculture are not the most exciting topics for breakfast, but that worked out well for us. At 7am this morning we had six experts, including a real farmer (which is rare in global talks about farming, ironically), and a small audience, leading to a concentrated and tight discussion around one of the most imporant topics in food system transformation. We also had food systems guru Dr Olivier de Schutter from IPES food there, which made it even better (he makes all food policy better), and we formed an alliance with a Finnish based organisation Baltic Sea Action Group working with Finnish farmers on regenerative agriculture, similar to the work Spira is doing on that in New Zealand.
At its side event, Danone brought a restorative agriculture farmer from Normandy in France, where it is working with farmers to increase restorative agriculture and support them. This was the first surprise of the day. Acknowledging that as a food corporation they are the cause of many of the problems in the food system by Eric Soubeiran (VP Nature and Water Cycle of Danone, France) was the other morning surprise.
Farmer Damien LeCuir, from Normandy, France shared the work he does on the ground to change his farming practices to be restorative including: recycling biomass, crop production, animal waste and offal (spreading 50 tonnes / ha every 5 years to pasture allows to spread waste naturally); evaultion of carbon emissions on farm; preserving the soil which means no till, intermediate crops in between cycles, reducing inputs like fertilisers and introducing alphapha, peas, and clovers for grasslands to feed cows.
He also noted he pledges not to import GM soil, which is an issue that is not so high on the agenda in New Zealand but came up throughout the day. Damien encourages farmers to try something new and experiment, working with 10 farmers in Normandy trying to develop biodiversity by increasing areas of grassland and planting hedges to increase insects and bees.
The final plenary session today ended on regenerative agriculture and also included farmer Beth Robinette who owns and operates Lazy R Ranch in Cheney, Washington, US. Her approach to grassland grazing goes against the US norm of feedlot meat with feed bought in for animals. Beth supplements a little feed, but her animals being grass fed and part of the ecological system of the grasslands was a powerful message.
This is of course tricky when trying to take that rationale to grass fed animals in New Zealand, many of which have lead to the destruction of our water ways where mis-managed. And of course our native grassland areas are few and far between, and given we just had birds and no grazers in our native ecosystem (aside from some grazing birds) those arguments don’t stand up either. Yet cows/beef and animal husbandry have ecological roles and services, which are not taken into account when blanket discussions of meat reduction are introduced.
This was in contrast to the view of Pat Brown CEO of Impossible Foods, who sees no relevance for animals, which he considers an outdated and inefficient technology. Pat’s analogy of alternative meats being the digital camera and out dating animal meat which is the Kodak, in ten years, was a powerful one.
Discussions earlier in the day on the role of insects, duckweed, and also fungi (Quorn is a fungi, who knew?) to substitute protein had added to the questions on plant based protein alternatives.
Perhaps Impossible Foods can do that to the hamburger market in the US, as that is the cultural diet in the US, but in the other couple of hundred countries in the world with a stronger food culture, the change is going to be more difficult, as Jen Leung from WildAid noted about trying to change meat consumption in China. Cultural context is important.
And so of course is the economic and social aspect of farming, which so far are not high on the agenda at this forum.
High lights from today were also the general event management - no one does a smooth food forum like the Swedes, with the feeling of being inside a club rather than a conference, the best plant based food around, and even a silent disco to watch movies and listen to parallel sessions in other areas.
Day one was a solid 9.5 out of 10 for us and we are looking forward to tomorrow. The .5 would be a more balanced discussion on meat and protein // bias in the agenda.