Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA at the Natural Products Expo West Show in Anaheim, CA, Collins said that rather than feeding animals grains (which generate their own carbon footprint and take up agricultural land), grazing ruminant animals (eg. cows, bison, sheep etc) eat grass, and fertilize the soil, while holistic farming practices support wildlife biodiversity, sequester carbon in the soil, hold ground water and build topsoil.
He added: “The documented research that gives meat and dairy a bad rap is based on conventional, commodity, high intensity industrialized agriculture… but the conversation really needs to focus on is there another way to do it?
“Large ruminant animals have co-evolved with land for millions of years. These big herds that once existed in nature… their hooves aerate the soil, and allow water to penetrate the earth. They are also fantastic fertilizers, they urinate and defecate and stamp their manure into the soil and build healthy microbiology, and then grasslands are some of the most powerful systems for sequestering carbon [the grass sucks carbon dioxide out of the air, and takes water from the soil to create carbohydrates/sugar and oxygen is released back into the atmosphere]."
Is it scalable?
But can you feed the world with grass-fed livestock?
“It can absolutely be scaled," claimed Collins. "This regenerative agriculture movement is so new, and consumers don’t really understand it yet… the amount of regenerative, holistically-managed meat that is produced in this country right now is a number of small producers so the opportunity to optimize that and scale that is enormous.
“We’re not optimizing our land. A large percentage of our land can’t be farmed, it can’t be used to grow crops so how do we use that to produce food? In certain areas animals are the only option.”
Cultured meat: Greener, cleaner, kinder?
Asked whether cultured meat might not be greener, cleaner and kinder than raising animals for meat, however humanely, he said: “We need animals to regenerate and heal the soil and be part of the ecosystem and have grasslands that are healthy and flourishing… I think it is going in the wrong direction for the natural foods industry.”
(Want an alternative perspective on 'clean meat'? Click HERE)
Do consumers get regenerative agriculture?
Speaking during an education session on regenerative agriculture at the show on Saturday March 11, Chris Kerston from The Savory Institute (which promotes holistic farming practices) said that he anticipated that organic, 100% grass-fed, and regenerative agriculture label claims would co-exist in the marketplace, as they all meant slightly different things.
For example, organic beef can come from cows fed soy and corn (rather than grass) and does not necessarily mean animals have the freedom to roam as extensively as 100% grass-fed animals.
Meanwhile, 100% grass-feeding in and of itself does not necessarily deliver the benefits to the soil that regenerative agriculture delivers if grazing isn't carefully managed such that the grass has time to recover, he said.
Is it time for a regenerative agriculture seal?
While it is a complex subject, regenerative agriculture is in large part about enriching the soil and leaving it better than you found it, as well as caring for animals and letting them behave in a more instinctive way, said Kerston.
"We are working on a consumer-facing seal so that a consumer can say I know with empirical data that this product has made the land better. We'd like that to be tested in stores by the end of the year and rolled out in 2018."
Collins, who sat on the panel with Kerston during the session, added: "There's nothing wrong with a plant-based diet but I feel that when people talk about Meatless Mondays and being conscious consumers, it's like opting out, rather than getting in there and trying to change the [animal farming] system for the better [by choosing meat farmed using regenerative practices]. It's about mindful meat."
Find out more about regenerative agriculture at The Savory Institute.
EPIC sales have doubled since the brand was acquired by General Mills
EPIC Provisions - which was founded by Taylor Collins and Katie Forrest in early 2013 - launched with meat bars, but has gone on to expand into multiple product categories from EPIC bites, bits, Hunt & Harvest mix, animal oils and bone broth to pork rinds, and continues to lure new consumers to a category (premium meat snacks) that has rapidly gone from lukewarm to red hot.
Austin, Texas-based EPIC - which was acquired by General Mills in early 2016 - has doubled its revenues in the past 12 months and is on course to double again in the next 12 months, said Annie's president John Foraker (EPIC is part of the Berkeley-based Annie’s business, which was itself acquired by General Mills in 2014).