Coming to a retailer near you – sustainably farmed meat

19 May 2015 by The Million Metres team Auckland Council Northland

Food, Farms and Freshwater (3F) is a new social enterprise that intends to certify beef and lamb that has been produced in a way that contributes to waterway health – specifically ensuring waterways are ‘swimmable and fishable’.

The group, which was part of the Ākina Foundation’s Launchpad programme for social enterprises, was set up by environmental planner Rhys Millar and lawyer Natasha Garvan. Their inspiration came from working with beef farmers Mike and Sharon Barton who had successfully farmed under a nitrogen cap around Lake Taupo. The Bartons, also part of 3F, are selling their meat at a premium as Taupo Beef.

The plan is to now scale up this concept to a national level.

Making waterways swimmable and fishable within two generations

“Our vision is for New Zealand and international consumers to value and choose food products that support farmers who farm more sustainably, with the result that water quality and biodiversity are restored in New Zealand within two generations,” says 3F’s Rhys Millar, also of Ahika Consulting.

This vision has the potential to overturn the long held view that the two goals of growing our agricultural economy and protecting the environment are mutually exclusive.

Key to this, states Rhys, is the rise of ‘conscious consumers’. “The current trend by food consumers in the Western world to more deeply understand how their food is produced and who is producing it provides an excellent platform from which 3F can communicate its vision. The worldwide explosion of farmers markets is an example of this drive to understand food provenance and to connect urban consumers with rural producers.”

Sharing the burden of environmental management

By sharing the cost of environmental management with their consumers, the burden is decreased for sheep and beef farmers who, according to Rhys, are often making less than one per cent annual return on investment. “The cost of environmental management will be too great for farmers to bear on their own, and we believe that consumers, through their purchasing decisions, have a really positive role to play in solving that issue,” he says.

Clearly the environment has been the loser until now. “In real terms we’re paying less than a third for our food than we did in the 1950s,” says Rhys. “It has been calculated that the total environment costs of global food production is 224% of the global profits from food production,” adds Rhys.

Certifiably sustainable meat

So how will a certification system be established? The first step will be to establish a nationally applicable definition of ‘swimmable and fishable’ using various freshwater parameters. The aim is to encompass “wider attributes than simply whether or not a person will get sick”. This will be done with the assistance of some of New Zealand’s leading freshwater scientists.

Then 3F will develop a management plan framework and online platform for farmers in order for them to achieve top red meat quality standards and adhere to the swimmable and fishable objectives.

“At the moment we’re developing a pilot project with 40 farmers and one meat processor to establish a value chain where farmers achieve a premium for their meat products,” says Rhys. “The key is that there is clear action and commitment from farmers to achieving ‘swimmable and fishable’ waterways over a reasonable timeframe before they can be accepted to be certified.”

While it could be some time before certifiably sustainable meat arrives on the shelves, it is exciting to know that it’s on its way.

The project will also achieve other positive spin-offs including stronger rural communities, enriched biodiversity and enabling consumers to be part of the environmental solution.