If you're a meat eater who cares where your food is coming from, there's a good chance you've stood in the grocery store with a package of beef in one hand and your phone in the other, Googling various terms you see splashed across different packaging, like "grass-fed," "certified humane," and more. One such term, "regenerative meat," is becoming more common with brands, including Epic, Country Archer Provisions, and Carnivore Snax. The label definitely comes across as positive, but what does regenerative mean when it comes to meat and why should you care about it, as a consumer?
In general, regenerative meat describes meat products that are sourced from farmers practicing regenerative agriculture, which aims to reverse effects of climate change by rebuilding organic matter in soil and restoring degraded soil biodiversity. But beyond that broad definition, the term regenerative meat is largely shrouded in confusion. That's because there isn't one governing body or organization tasked with defining it; the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) currently have no guidelines surrounding the term. So, different grocery stores, farmers, food manufacturers, and nonprofits in the food sustainability space can all qualify what constitutes regenerative meat differently.
To further clear confusion about why regenerative meat is important, consider this your primer on everything you need to know about it. Beef up your ethical shopping knowledge below.
What is regenerative meat?
Across the board, it's agreed upon that regenerative meat must be organic and grass-fed, says Elizabeth Whitlow, executive director of nonprofit Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA). Organic means the animal was born and raised on certified organic pastures, so there are no chemicals in the grass or in the area that the animal was raised, and none of the feed was sprayed with synthetic pesticides. Grass-fed meat means that the animals ate grass as opposed to feed. But, meat being organic and grass-fed alone doesn't automatically make meat regenerative. "I know many wonderful grass-fed and organic operations. But regenerative goes further," Whitlow says.
"I know many wonderful grass-fed and organic operations. But regenerative goes further." —Elizabeth Whitlow, executive director of nonprofit Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA)
Beyond being grass-fed and organic, requirements for what is needed for meat to certify as regenerative differs among groups and sustainability-focused organizations—like ROA, Kiss the Ground, ReganAG, Regeneration International, the Rodale Institute, and Savory Network, to name a few. Whitlow says that in order for a meat product—or any product, for that matter—to be considered regenerative by the ROA's standards, for example, it must meet specific criteria connected to three pillars: the environment and soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness (treating workers ethically and fairly).
To obtain an ROA certification, Whitlow says meat purveyors that apply must meet requirements connected to each pillar. Regarding soil health, for example, the purveyor must practice rotational grazing (the practice of containing and moving animals through pasture to improve soil, plant, and animal health), avoid using chemicals (including pesticides), and not use genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to control weeds. (Some conventional farmers use GMO herbicide-tolerant crops in place of tilling the soil.) For animal welfare, the purveyor must ensure the animals are free from fear, discomfort, and distress by providing conditions wherein animals are able to express normal animal behavior (i.e., free range). And for social fairness, the purveyor must ensure all farm workers are paid a living wage and have good working conditions connected to social fairness, like the ability to form long-term commitments with the farm, if desired. These are just a few of their requirements connected to each pillar.
For Hickory Nut Gap Farm CEO and farmer Jamie Ager, though, the meaning of regenerative meat isn't so much about satisfying those specific points as much as reflecting the word "regenerative" itself. "To regenerate means to replace what's lost, so generating the soil is really key to this type of agriculture," he says. His farm in Fairview, North Carolina, practices rotational grazing and using cover crops (to slow erosion, improve soil health, enhance water availability, smother weeds, and help control pests) to build healthy soil.
The benefits of regenerative meat
Farmers, animals, consumers, and the environment alike benefit in myriad ways from the practice of regenerative farming practices. But, implementing such practices certainly requires work and a sense of accountability. Along with brands including Epic, Country Archer Provisions, and Carnivore Snax, Ager partnered with regenerative agriculture leader the Savory Institute to put best practices—like using the aforementioned cover crops and rotational grazing, along with animal welfare and social fairness—into action. "[Part of regenerative meat] is being intentional about the relationships you have with farmers so that it's a fair transaction," he says. "The ripple effect of that is that it builds healthier communities."
Similarly, letting animals graze instead of giving them traditional feed leads to positive trickle-down benefits too. Besides being closer to how animals would live in nature (and therefore more humane) and more nutrient-rich for the animals, research shows that meat has more nutrient value when the animals eat grass instead of conventional feed.
And then, of course, there's the environment. Contrary to what some may think, farming meat can be done in a way that helps to mitigate climate change. When animals are allowed to graze freely, they help improve the soil structure. Studies show that regenerative farmed cattle helps lower carbon emissions by helping to draw more carbon into the soil than the methane the cattle themselves are producing. In other words, regenerative farmed cattle helps to fight global warming.
Regenerative meat is nothing new
It's also important to specify that regenerative farming techniques (and many of the practices outlines in ROA's three pillars to define it) aren't new. In Indigenous and Native communities, regenerative practices have been the norm since before colonization, regardless of it not having fancy term attached. This is a history lesson Healing Gardens co-founders Abhi Arora and Rishi Kumar teach through their HealingGardens Podcast and as sustainability educators on a regular basis. Both say regenerative agriculture practices are intrinsic to Indigenous farmers' agricultural practices, which prioritize a relationship with the soil, animals, and people. And it's not about satisfying a checklist; it's the natural way of life and how it's always been done.
"If you look at all the regenerative agriculture practices, these are things that people have been doing around the world for millennia," Kumar, a small-scale farmer, says. He says that he doesn't believe the Western agriculture movement has fully grasped that regenerative farming techniques are more about living a value-informed way of life than satisfying criteria to get a certificate. "You see them focusing on specific practices, like, if cover cropping is good or bad. But when you actually talk to Indigenous people and look at what they practice, you know that every farming technique has a place."
For many farmers in the U.S., particularly Native farmers, farming meat regeneratively is simply how they believe it should be done so they may not go the extra step of getting a certification label. Because of this, Arora and Kumar say finding regenerative meat farmers in your area or brands to support can take a little detective work. Both recommend checking out the farmers or brands online and on social media to learn more about their values.
Ager agrees. "If the values of regenerative agriculture are important to someone, they are going to be sharing it on social media or other places," he says, adding that most companies are happy to talk to consumers about what they do, so there's no reason to be shy about reaching out. But when it comes to big brands, he says it's also important to read with a skeptical eye, as some may be trying to capitalize on consumers' good ethical intentions. This is when certifications like the ROA truly do come in handy.
By reading this at all, it means you care where your meat is coming from, and that's already a vastly important step in making a sustainable and ethically minded decision regarding what you're putting in your grocery cart (and ultimately on your plate). If you want to buy the most ethically sourced, sustainable meat possible, regenerative is the way to go. It's a win for the farmers, animals, the planet, and yourself.
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