Words by Circe Hughes

As awareness grows and the climate crisis deepens, the demand for the most damaging industries to have a complete overhaul is getting harder to ignore.

We are still, unfortunately, far from solving the issues at the heart of the crisis – in fact, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report confirmed that we would need to halve the world’s total emissions by 2030 to meet the limit of 1.5°C of global warming. But the language people are using to discuss the crisis is certainly changing. While we’re still encouraged to do our small part in saving the planet, more people are looking at how big businesses and industries as a whole can have the most wide-reaching impact on rising temperatures. Notably, this can be seen in the popularity of Extinction Rebellion, the notorious climate activism disrupters who call for extensive systemic change. At the time of writing, they’re planning a major intervention throughout Westminster for four days this April with a projected turnout of 100,000 people – it’s called ‘The Big One’.

Among the main polluting culprits – closely following oil, coal and aviation – is agriculture. Pollution from intensive and hyper-modernised farming comes in the form of poisoned water, ecosystems, air and soil. The various hazardous chemicals used in many of the now standardised practices cause habitat loss, hormone changes in people and wildlife, and damage to coral reefs. At the same time, gas-powered machinery bulks up the sector’s carbon emissions and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation found that rearing livestock alone contributes to 18% of the world’s greenhouse gas pollution. 

This is of course not the farmers’ fault on an individual level, but an overarching systemic issue. Overblown consumerist lifestyles have turned agriculture into a swollen, frenzied machine desperately trying to keep up with demand. As a result, the machine has resorted to critically unsustainable – often cruel and extreme – methods to meet quotas.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Really. There’s a movement emerging that proposes to turn it all around: regenerative farming. At its core – and as the name suggests – regenerative farming implements methods to maintain soil health so that the land is better, rather than significantly worse, off at the end of the process.

This is not an entirely novel idea. In the USA, Indigenous farmers have always been conscious of not disrupting the ecosystem. But it is one that’s become more prevalent outside of those communities over the past decade. A recent report from Systemiq found that the instances of the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ being used in news sources increased “dramatically” after 2015. They also found that farmers across Europe have already been successfully – and profitably – reducing their use of agrochemicals, causing less disturbance to soil and placing importance on biodiversity.

So buzz has been building around the term in food and agriculture groups, but trying to attach it to a solid definition is quite tricky. Jack Feeny of No Mise En Plastic, a manual based out of London of practical tips that chefs can use to reduce the number of single-use products in their kitchen, is currently studying for an MSc in regenerative food and farming. He explains that while practitioners and scholars of regenerative farming haven’t nailed down an official definition of the term yet, it can be described through its outcomes. As he puts it, regenerative farming is when “agricultural practices that increase biodiversity, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, improve soil health and increase a farm’s resilience” are used.

Without a specific definition, certain familiar issues arise. George Lamb, the co-founder of leading regenerative flour suppliers Wildfarmed, says, “regenerative farming is becoming more and more of a buzzword, but right now, there is no one singular certification body for determining who is and isn’t regenerative, which means anyone can plaster it next to their products.” And, as a result, greenwashing is definitely a concern here.

But when implemented properly, these practices have a wealth of benefits. Feeny says that regenerative farming methods “can reduce a farm system’s reliance on energy-intensive external inputs such as chemical pesticides and fertilisers, whilst also building resilience to changing weather conditions. It can improve soil health through its focus on taking care of the microbiology and this can in turn help mitigate climate change through increased carbon sequestration.”

But actually implementing these methods is, of course, not without its challenges. As Lamb says, “farmers do not get enough respect for the work they do, they are grafters, up at dawn, working through the night, they’re mechanics, engineers, vets, all self-taught and what do they get in return? Policies and governments that don’t prioritise or reward their hard work. The current challenge is navigating the new ELM [Environmental Land Management] scheme while retaining a profit or breaking even.”

While it may not be considered an agricultural hub, London’s definitely becoming a hotspot for the regenerative movement. “More and more restaurants are opting to use regenerative suppliers – Shrub [ethical suppliers of fruits and vegetables] currently deal with 150 London restaurants and Wildfarmed are everywhere too,” says Feeny. Lamb says of Wildfarmed’s ubiquity, “naturally, as with a lot of new trends, the big cities seem to be the genesis point of things. We’ve had a lot of traction in London, Manchester, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Bristol and Dublin but there are pockets of great people doing really interesting things all over the country.” 

At this stage, London’s restaurants are in a prime position to champion regenerative farming and bring it to a large audience who may not be aware of the concept – but who will care. Feeny says, “farming is the only industry that can sequester carbon. Choosing the right supplier that grows food that increases biodiversity and improves soil health is the best thing a chef can do to reduce their environmental impact. Farmers should dictate menus by growing what they need to grow in order to protect their soil biology and chefs should use their skills to convert what they are given into something delicious.”

One of the restaurants really leaning into regenerative produce here in the city is The Culpeper, an East End spot that’s always kept sustainability at its core. The Culpeper’s head chef and managing director (The Culpeper Family Hospitality Group) Sandy Jarvis explains that their move towards sourcing ingredients farmed regeneratively started during the first lockdown. “We really wanted to come out of the lockdown stronger and be able to spend time working on things that we weren’t really able to work on on a day-to-day basis. And one of those projects was our food sourcing policy,” he says. “The more reading and learning we did, the more we kept coming back to the importance of soil health. If you can leave the earth in a more healthy state at the end of the process than the start of the process, then you must be on the road to doing something right.” 

This spring, The Culpeper is reopening their rooftop for the warmer months with a lunchtime set menu designed to showcase regenerative producers. Expect dishes such as whole mackerel with crispy kale, grilled pork neck with honey & harissa, and lemon verbena posset with rhubarb compote & shortbread, with ingredients sourced from the likes of Two Fields Olive Oil, an entirely regenerative farm, and The Culpeper’s newly-acquired plot of land in Deptford.

As regenerative agriculture is still a somewhat burgeoning and nebulous movement – and one that requires a lot of hard work to get off the ground – its future is uncertain. But, it’s brimming with possibility. For now, it’s likely that London’s interest in it will continue to grow, with restaurants playing a key role in that. Chefs in the city are increasingly choosing regeneratively-farmed ingredients, as Feeny says, “currently, the cost of their [regenerative suppliers] produce is higher than other suppliers but many chefs are willing to pay extra, as food grown with regenerative practices tastes better. Plants in healthy soils take up more nutrients which are used to create phytonutrients – the building blocks of flavour compounds.”

And that choice can carry a lot of weight, Jarvis says, “the great thing about restaurants is our ability to have a bigger impact. We serve hundreds of people a week, so we can make that impact quite quickly.” As for why you should care, if you’re not already sold on the environmental benefits, Lamb puts it simply: “real food tastes better.”