Regenerative farming, sometimes referred to as restorative farming, is a term that encompasses or is associated with many agricultural practices; agroecology, agroforestry, permaculture and silvopasture to name a few. The basic tenet that unites these agricultural systems, is the need to move away from intensive farming practises, because they are ecologically unsound. Instead regenerative farming adopts a more holistic approach to agriculture, co-opting natural principles to cultivate the land in harmony with nature, rather than working against it. It focuses on the regeneration of top soil health, improving water retention, promoting wildlife biodiversity, carbon sequestration and multilayered perennial crops.
Intensive farming is reliant on pesticides, fertilisers and genetical engineered crops. Nearly all intensive farming is based around annual monoculture crops such as corn and wheat, which lead to a degradation in soil health, due to tillage and the lack of cover crops to restore microbial biodiversity in the soil. The majority of these crops are used to produce cattle feed and biofuel. Only the rest is used for human consumption. As intensive farming has become the global norm and production has become ever more prolific, it has encroached further and further into wild habitats such as the Amazonian rainforest, the deforestation of which has destroyed wildlife and displayed countless indigenous tribes, all the whilst damaging the planets ability to sequester carbon.
Perennial vs Annual agriculture
Corn, wheat, rice, cassava, soybeans and potatoes are the most intensively farmed crops worldwide. All of these crops are known as annual crops, meaning they have one growing season. They are planted and harvested once per season. The soil is tilled, in order to disturb the top layer so that seeds may be sown. Once the crop has reached maturity it is harvested. Where intensive farming is practised they are planted as a monoculture, meaning nothing is grown on the same parcel of land whilst the the crop reaches maturity. Annual crops are problematic for manifold reasons:
1 - Because the crop needs replanting every season, as such the soil must be tilled. This disruptive process is damaging to soil health, exposing a whole host of microorganisms to the elements. Over repeated seasons the soil loses all of the nutrients originally created by the microorganism present in the soil. To counter this farmers need to use fertilisers. Fertilisers are expensive and also end up flowing into rivers and water systems, causing algae to bloom and suffocate other wild life in the waterways. Combined with tilling the lack of cover crops (plants that grow amongst the primary crop) prevents the retention of water in the top soil, leading to soil erosion and eventually desertification. It is this process that led to the dust bowl of the 1930’s in the United States.
2 - Because each crop is planted once per season, it means that for a vast amount of the time the field is bare, as we wait for the crop to germinate and reach maturity. No photosynthesis occurs during the time. It is only for a relatively short amount of time, when the crop reaches maturity that photosynthesis occurs, converting carbon dioxide into oxygen.
3 - Annual crops make extremely poor environments for wildlife. The spraying of pesticides kill indiscriminately all but the crop, leading to a massive loss of biodiversity. The removal of forage, hedgerows, coppice and cover crops, excludes a whole host of wildlife from their once natural habitats. The constant tilling of the soil also destroys the habitat of countless species of insects, worms, fungi, bacteria, reptiles and mammals.
4 - Replanting every season is also a costly process, taking into account the seeds, fuel, machinery and labour needed to sow and till the soil.
Perennial agriculture on the other hand, by its very nature, does not need planting every year, just once when it is originally seeded or planted. If the plant takes successfully, it will yield crops annually throughout its natural lifecycle. Even when not producing a crop, the plant is still actively photosynthesising, converting carbon dioxide into oxygen. For plants that shed their leaves in winter, minimal photosynthesis still happens through their stems. Most importantly though, is that no tilling is required to re-plant perennial crops, the top soil remains undisturbed and allowed the opportunity to regenerate, leaving wildlife habitats undisturbed also. Not having to replant every year also offsets the costs of seeds, machinery, fuel and labour.
Permaculture/Polyculture vs monoculture
Whilst permaculture can be hard to define, it is a fundamental tenet of regenerative farming. From a reductionist perspective, it is grounded in an eco ethical approach to how we live our lives as humans on this planet. In terms of agriculture it takes the form of biomimetics; agricultural practises that mimic natural systems, rather than seeking to force nature to behave in a certain way. In terms of regenerative agriculture, polyculture is an integral part of this process. A polyculture is complex agricultural system comprised of woody crops, orchards fruits, root crops, cover crops, cane and vine fruit, forage layer, pasture, livestock and fungi. All the components of this system benefit each other and mimic the functions of a healthy ecosystem. Its primary purpose is to create a robust agricultural system. Monocultures tend to be fragile and risk inherent, with crops failing due to a host of reasons: bad weather, disease, pests. Without a secondary or tertiary crop to fall back on, farmers often have no other source of income, limiting their already paper thin margins.
The process of establishing a viable polyculture, begins with identifying the type of biome inherent to the geolocation of the farm. A biome is a community of plants and animals that have developed in response to a specific physical climate. Overall the UK is a temperate deciduous forest, whereas the oak savannah is inherent to California, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, with various pockets being found across the United States. Other biomes include the temperate riparian zones, pine forests, boreal forests and the subtropics. Each of these biomes is suited to growing specific crops and by understanding their inherent climate, soil chemistry and biodiversity, the regenerative farmer can harness nature’s power of selection.
Understanding the ecosystem inherent to a specific biome is the first step in creating an agricultural system based upon multi layered crops. In its simplest terms, multi layered crops break down as follows:
1 - Woodland Crops
These form the basis of your first perennial crops, these may include trees such as hazelnuts, chestnut trees or pine. The trees provide a highly nutritious crop that can either be sold for human consumption or used as animal feed. Woodland is positioned all along the perimeter of the farm and also acts as crucial wind cover.
2 - Orchard Fruits, Vine & Cane Fruits
These are compromised of anything from, pears, apples, cherries and plums to name a few. When accurately spaced orchard trees also act as trellises for vine and cane fruits (the rubus family that compromises raspberries, blackberries and logan berries to name a few).
3 - Root Crops & Cover Crops
Roots crops such as beets, potatoes, or brassica can be grown interspaced in areas between the orchards. Cover crops such as melilot (a sweet clover) are interspersed between the rows of root crops. These crops are essential in returning organic matter back to the top soil when they decompose, whilst also helping with water retention and preventing soil erosion.
4 - Forage Layer
Between the the orchard trees and roots crops should be a layer of forage which help with zoning and also creates vital habitat for wildlife. The forage layer is comprised of annual weeds, shrubs, perennial weeds and grasses. This habitat is also a great resource for foraging wild ingredients such as rosehip, meadowsweet, mushrooms and alexanders to name a few. The forage layer is also a vital resource for animal feed.
5 - Pasture/Meadows
Pasture also forms part of the regenerative landscape. The focus being on regenerative soil health by letting annual weeds, perennial weeds and grasses grow, providing nutrition for grazing livestock, which in return fertilise the soil.
6 - Livestock
Livestock are are an essential component in regenerating soil health. The typical selection of livestock would be as follows; cattle (cows/bison/deer), hogs (wild boar/pigs), poultry (chickens/turkeys/geese), goats or sheep. Agrofrorestry and silvopasture are agricultural practises that inform regenerative farming. This is not the process of letting livestock loose in woodland environment to forage for their food with zero intervention, but rather the careful management of an open-canopy tree and forage system to optimise the nutrition available to livestock, so that they are healthy and maximise growth. The rotation of livestock through the polyculture landscape is a leader-follower grazing system. This means that one animal type is let into a paddock at a time, based upon its preferred food source. Once it has eaten its preferred food it is then rotated to the next paddock and the next animal type is brought into the paddock. You can observe this natural grazing system in Africa’s Serengeti, whereby pressure from predators forces grazing animals to move on from one patch (where they eat their preferred forage), to a more secure patch once the predators arrive. After the predators leave, another species of grazing animals moves into the patch and the process repeats itself. Trampling from the the grazing animals hoofs, helps integrate their manure into the soil and their hoof marks also create little basins that help retain water and seeds to germinate and take root.
Designing an agricultural system around these crops requires a vast amount of knowledge, planning and skill, with the positioning of each element being of utmost importance. For example, understanding wich cane or vine fruit grow will thrive in an orchard environment is crucial for the system to work. Understanding the rotation of livestock and when to move them to each parcel is also important.
One of the major benefits of a complex open-canopy tree and forage system, is sunlight capture and the resulting photosynthesis. Annual agriculture is like a flat sheet of paper, the sunlight capture is two dimensional. In a canopy/forage system it is three dimensional, across the same surface area, exponentially increasing sunlight capture and conversion of carbon dioxide into oxygen.
Furthermore a permaculture is not reliant on pesticides to control disease and pests, instead it utilises natural cycles and selection processes to tackle them. The reliance on pesticides in intensive agriculture is heavily detrimental to the environment, as they indiscriminately make their way into the surrounding ecosystems and waterways. Constant spraying of pesticides, which might result in short term results, ultimately results in pesticide resistant pests and diseases, requiring ever new and toxic pesticides to combat them. This is especially a problem in cloned monocultures. Without natural mutations occurring, crops are unable to develop natural resistance to pests and diseases. Natural selection practises, lead to naturally resistant crops
A major criticism levelled at regenerative agriculture is that it is unable to produce enough yield to effectively feed a global population, in the same way that an annual crop such as corn wheat or rice is able to.
If we look at corn as an example of a global food crop, we rapidly encounter certain issues. Namely that whilst corn (Zea Mays) is a source of carbohydrates and packs a big calorific punch, it is deficient in many of the essential minerals and vitamins needed for the human body to function. Corn contain very little calcium (700mg per 10,000g), no vitamin D, C, E, B12 or folic acid (essential for the production of red blood cells). It does however, have an excessive amount of magnesium (12,700mg per 10,000g) which can worsen calcium deficiency. So if we were to use corn as the main food source we would rapidly encounter a whole host of maladies if the calcium deficiency or scurvy didn’t kill us first.
Another health issue related to relying on corn as the primary food source is called pellagra. It is not a deficiency per se, but rather hat the human body is unable to process an essential vitamin; B3 or niacin as it is also known, which is present in corn. Further to this, corn is lacking in an essential amino acid called Lysine, which is essential in the formation of brain tissue and the body’s ability to process niacin. But firstly the only way to make niacin bioavailable to the human body is a process called nixtamalization (converting hemicellulose- bound niacin into free niacin). The process, which was discovered by Meso- Americans and North-Americans, involves soaking the corn in a lime (calcium hydroxide) and wood ash solution (potassium hydroxide), both of which are chemically alkaline. This process also allows the corn to absorb both calcium and potassium. Consequently these cultures were free of calcium deficiencies. European settlers who initially adopted corn as a staple grain, but not the process of nixtamalization. Consequently they were faced with an epidemic of pellagra in countries such as Spain, Italy and the American South where it had become a primary crop. It is the reason why hominy, used to make grits across the souther U.S states is nixtamalized.
So what about wheat? Surely a staple grain to rival corn? Firstly, some context with regards to corn production:
In 2008 12.1 billion bushels of corn were produced in the U.S
43% was used as livestock feed
30% was used to make ethanol fuel
15% was exported
7.7% was used as industrial ingredients (corn starch oil, high fructose corn syrup, etc.)
2.7% was used for human consumption
In 2019 the total U.S. wheat production was 1.92 billion bushels of wheat, with a study from Cornell suggesting that 40% was being fed to livestock. Further to this over half the production was exported world wide.
Firstly, the production of wheat is significantly less than corn, primarily due to the fact is not used to produce bio-fuel. Secondly, similar to corn, the majority of wheat production is used as animal feed, which causes a trophic imbalance (which is covered later).
From a nutritional perspective, wheat fares somewhat better than corn, with dietary fibre, manganese, phosporous, niacin and several vitamin B’s present. However it is still deficient in Lysine, calcium and vitamin C. This nutritional breakdown is relevant to unprocessed wheat. The majority of the wheat we consume is processed, which further devalues its nutritional content.
The solution is not abandoning these crops altogether, but rather adopting a more measured approach, whereby 40% of the harvest is not used for animal feed. It is also important to acknowledge that it is a myth that these crops alone feed the global population. Wheat, corn etc, should form a constituent part of a complex agricultural palate. We should also be looking to broaden our dietary spectrum, seeking out new crops, perennial if possible.
Intensive agriculture is heavily reliant on fossil fuel to power all the machinery required to sow, maintain and harvest their crops.
Intensive agriculture is rarely if ever, profitable. Between buying, seeds, fertiliser, pesticides, fuel, machinery, the maintenance of machinery and labour, farmers are unable to make a living without heavy governmental assistance and subsidies. This is further exasperated by our reliance on cheap food, perpetuated by major supermarket chains. As the value of crops has decreased over the years, the margins have become increasingly slim, whilst the costs of running a farm has only increased.
Whilst regenerative agriculture still has costs associated with the upkeep of the land/livestock and harvesting, they are substantially less than intensive farming practices, due to the lack of pesticides, fertilisers and tillage in the farming process.
Water retention / Keylines
Water management is a key part of any agricultural system. Without and abundance of water it is near impossible to harvest any crops. Our access to fresh water sources is at increasing peril, whether due to contamination from pollutants, such was the case with the well documented Flint Water Crisis (2014-2019) in Michigan, whereby the city’s water was contaminated with lead, exposing between 6,000 to 12,000 children in the process, or the depletion of water tables as is the case with Mexico City, which is gradually sinking into the ground. Both the contamination of water sources and the depletion of underground water tables are exasperated by intensive farming practices.
As discussed previously, intensive farming is responsible for pesticides and fertilisers finding their way into water systems. However, the desertification of top soil is intrinsically linked to the depletion of underground water tables and flooding. In basic terms, depleted soil has a very low moisture content, meaning that when it rains the top soil forms a non porous layer, which rain water pours off rather than sink into the lower layers, restoring the water table. In healthy soil, which retains a higher water content throughout the year, (helped by a host of organisms creating a lattice of small tunnels and cavities for water to gather in), the water is able to permeate beyond the surface strata.
Dry soil also worsens flooding, as the rainwater precipitates from the fields and into the river systems, gorging them with water. Again this is worsened by farmers relying on natural water systems during the summer months, pumping vast amounts of water out of the rivers and lakes and into the fields, causing droughts. The rivers banks, usually verdant with trees and fauna become exposed and wither, destroying natural flood defences. As such, an increasingly damaging cycle is created.
In agricultural terms a keyline is a landscaping technique that takes advantage of naturally occurring topographic features to maximise water retention and distribution throughout the farmers land. Simply put the process identifies a natural point in the landscape where rain water gathers. From that point a series of irrigation trenches (keylines) are dug which distribute the water flow throughout the farm and to the crops. Keylines are a fundamental building block of a regenerative agriculture and in conjunction with choosing crops that are most suited to the local biome, they can in the best case scenarios completely eradicate the need to import water from outside sources. Even under more moderate circumstances they are key in reducing the farmers reliance on water from outside the property. In addition to all thus, by saturating the soil with water, they soil acts as filter and purifier, whilst also reducing precipitation into nearby water sources, thus reducing flooding risks.
There is debate as to the evolutionary influence of meat in our prehistoric diet. However, it is safe to say we have been eating meat as species for a very long time (approximately 2 million years). Whilst there are many cultures that eat a plant based diet (it is estimated that around 8% of the global population is vegetarian), for many meat is still a necessary component of their diet. Meat in many ways is a highly efficient source of nutrition containing five of the B-complex vitamins: thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6 and vitamin B12 as well being a significant source of protein. Not to say that one cannot access all the necessary nutrients from a plant based diet, it just requires a little more care, attention and education. Furthermore, if you follow the dietary guidelines agreed upon by most health professionals, overall they agree that the Mediterranean diet is the one of the most complete and healthy diets we know of. It consists of eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, some cereals and pulses, oily fish and a small but regular amount of meat.
However, in this modern age, meat and the overall amount of meat we consume has become problematic, not only from an ethical perspective but also the impact that raising livestock has on the climate, in particular deforestation and methane production.
In order to fully understand the impact of meat consumption on the climate it is first important to acknowledge the complexity of the issue. Despite our perception, meat has not always been a prominent part of our diet. Even for the majority of indigenous hunter gatherers (with a few exceptions such as inuits, who's diet is nearly 100% animal protein), meat still only equates to roughly 30% of their diet. Furthermore, researchers investigating the benefits of the much touted Palaeolithic diet (lean meat, fish, fruit, vegetables but no grains or pulses) have also concluded that our ancestors might not have been as reliant on meat as we first understood them to be. In fact western countries appear to be decreasing their overall meat consumption, whilst developing countries are increasingly reliant on it. This has been attributed to the development of a middle class in these countries, who view meat consumption as a signifier of wealth.
Even the hallowed roast chicken only became a household staple in the 1920’s when Mrs Wilmer Steele of Delaware in the United States pioneered the commercial broiler chicken industry, creating a broiler house with capacity for 10,000 birds, all reared in close proximity to each other. Prior to that chickens were only eaten on special occasions and even eggs were deemed a luxury item.
It is a crucial to understand the impact of industrialisation on the rearing of livestock. The industrialisation of livestock rearing can be traced back to when we transitioned from hunter gatherers to agriculturists. For our ancestors keeping livestock such as sheep, goats and cows came with many benefits, including dairy and meat. However, keeping livestock in close proximity to each other also brought with it increased exposure to new infectious diseases and parasites. More recently, post WWII, a surplus in grain reserves (production was dramatically increased in the U.S and the UK to feed the war effort), led to cattle being fed that surplus grain instead of grass on pastured land. This had a dramatic effect of the cattle industry. Whilst grain fed cattle does produced nicely marbled beef, the low fibre diet can cause sickness in cattle and increase the chances of harmful bacteria proliferating. This increases the use antibiotics and dietary supplements.
However, one major advantage of feeding cattle grain, was the economies of scale. Gone was the need for large swathes of pasture, that require regular rotation. Cattle could be kept in the same place all year round in a semi-static environment, with the feed brought directly to them. Again, the proximity of livestock to each other compounded the proliferation of disease and parasites, requiring new antibiotics as bacteria and parasites became resistant to the old ones. Of course all these antibiotics made their way into the human food chain, with significant risk, making us vulnerable to a host of zoonotic diseases that include: anthrax, brucellosis, cryptosporidiosis, dermatophilosis, Escherichia coli, giardiasis, leptospirosis, listeriosis, pseudocowpox, Q fever, rabies, ringworm, salmonellosis, tuberculosis, and vesicular stomatitis. Despite all this, our appetite for meat has only grown and it is only recently that we have seen a decline in consumption (around -4.5% in 2018) in western countries.
The use of grain as cattle feed is also questionable from an trophic perspective and economy of energy. To clarify, the trophic level of an organism refers to the position it occupies in a food web. Trophic food level 1 of the food web begins with producers such as plants. Typically but not always level 2 is herbivores (primary consumers), level 3 is carnivores (secondary consumers) and levels 4 and 5 are for apex predators (this includes humans). The cycle is complete with decomposers (detritivores) such as bacteria and fungi that break down animal material and waste, converting it into inorganic materials such as mineral nutrients that are consumed by plants. The more biodiversity in an ecosystem the more complex the food web.
A key concept in understanding trophic levels is called ‘biomass transfer efficiency’. This is most effectively demonstrated as a pyramid, with primary producers (level 1) occupying the base and largest strata. Primary produces consume nutrients produced by decomposers and also convert sunlight into energy via photosynthesis. Primary producers contain 100% of the energy that originates in the food web.
Another key point to understand is the conversation of energy from primary producers (level 1) to the primary consumers (level 2). This is called an energy pyramid. With every step up the pyramid energy is lost as heat, as virtually all animals produce heat through bodily functions and movement. Typically only 10% of the energy contained in the primary producers is converted into energy that the primary consumers can use.
Further energy loss is incurred, when primary consumers (herbivores) are consumed by secondary consumers (carnivores). Only 1% of the energy from the base level primary producers is transferred and only 0.1% is transferred from primary producers to apex predators. As such, levels 3, 4 and 5 have to consume vast amounts of animal protein in order to access the energy input they need to survive. This is referred to ‘ecological efficiency’, the general rule being that only 10% of the chemical energy is passed from producer to consumer and converted into organic tissue.
This balance in trophic levels is maintained in a healthy ecosystem as it is self regulating. In simple terms, if there are too many level 2 herbivores, this will lead to a depletion in level 1 plant life, but will lead to a boom in level 3, then 4 and 5 carnivorous consumers. They in turn control the numbers of level 2 herbivores, which restores the levels of level 1 plant life. The decline in level 2 herbivores causes a decline in level 3, 4 and 5 carnivores and from here the cycle resets, with more waste matter becoming available to the decomposers.
Feeding grain to cattle or livestock causes a ‘trophic imbalance’ in a first instance because the livestock are divorced from any regulatory mechanism. The more cattle we have, the more grain we feed them. The intense rearing of livestock is even immune to market forces, the price may fluctuate but rarely does the supply, we simply expand aggressively in order to meet demand.
This ‘trophic imbalance’ is not the most pressing issue when it comes to rearing livestock. The most worrying aspect is actually the ‘ecological efficiency’. Let’s say a human eats 10 lbs of corn directly, approximately 1 lbs of that corn will be converted into organic tissue. The same principle applies to cows, if a cow consumes 10 lbs of corn, approximately 1 lbs is converted into beef. The problem becomes evident, when you consider the human as a secondary consumer. In order to create 1 lbs of organic tissue, a human would have to consume 10 lbs of beef, and in turn the cow would have to consume 100 lbs of corn. To put in another way, every time a we eat 1 lbs of corn fed beef we are really consuming 10 lbs of corn.
The problem is further exasperated when you consider the yield of each cow carcass, which is around 65%. Let say a corn fed steer has a market weight (how much it weighs whilst alive) of 1,150 lbs, the yield of that carcass will be around 715 lbs and the around 596 lbs of that carcass will be suitable for human consumption (including liver, heart, tongue, tripe, kidneys etc). This conversation of 1,150 lbs to 596 lbs changes the ecological efficiency from 10% to 5.4%. This is even more worrying when we consider that between 30% and 40% of total corn production is dedicated to cattle feed and articulates why grain feed cattle is so energy inefficient and detrimental to the environment. As an industry it props up the intensive farming of monoculture crops such as corn and wheat.
To conclude the argument surrounding ‘ecological efficiency’, livestock reared on grain is simply too costly from an energy perspective. Livestock raised in accordance with regenerative practices and in particular rotational grazing, is the way forward. Through this process livestock are fed on their natural diet and they also return key nutrients to the top soil and allow level 1 producers to thrive. As such, trophic balance is achieved. It means that we as humans have to collectively understand our role (as level 5 consumers) in maintaining that balance.
So what’s the solution? Should we stop eating meat altogether? Arguably not, but rather that we should adopt an educated approach to eating meat. One that understands provenance, farming practices, one that appreciates the importance of animal welfare and the role of a complex diet in producing good quality meat. For instance, it has been shown that a complex diet consisting of grass and forage, creates complex fats in beef rich in omega 3. Most importantly we must accept that rearing livestock is an expensive undertaking and that we should be inherently suspicious of cheap meat, it should be reassuringly expensive. We should take time to source our meat (and avoid the supermarkets), from the myriad of wonderful producers we have here in the UK. Livestock reared according to regenerative practices eat a better and more varied diet, they move more amongst pastures and woodland. With more space to roam and no overcrowding, antibiotics and nutritional supplements are only used when strictly necessary. Most importantly livestock allowed to roam freely outdoors always have a happier life, surely that should matter to everyone. Furthermore, it means that the quantity of livestock will be lower and the price higher, but it also means us eating the correct amount of meat, once or twice a week, as part of a varied diet, not as the main element.
How does this apply to drinks?
Great advances have been made by the hospitality industry in the last 10 years, in particular our attitudes towards waste. Ryan Chetiyawardana spearheaded the way in drinks, with venues such as White Lyan and Cub. In food, Doug McMaster has done much to educate people with regards to zero waste, proving that delicious dishes are simply a matter of imagination and that waste is the product of a lack thereof.
But whilst reducing waste remains an urgent priority, it’s important to understand that it is part of the equation, not the whole solution. To put it plainly, recycled zero emission packaging is all good and well, but ultimately pointless if the product it contains is harmful to the environment.
As the UK, now separate from the EU makes it way alone in economic terms, it is impossible to fully comprehend or predict the immense consequences this will have on our food chain. It does gives us cause to pause and think upon how our agricultural system operates, where our food comes from and how agricultural policy directly impacts the environment. If we are to imagine a future where we begin to undo some of the damage we have done to the environment, we need to tackle a few things:
Whilst no one would advocate becoming completely isolationist and abandoning food imports entirely, it is important that we tackle our reliance upon them. The primary elements that we rely on to create our menus have to change. This means using produce such as pineapples, avocados, limes sparingly and not treating them as an inexhaustible commodities.
Use these elements, but sparingly and when they are at their best. These ingredients should be highlighted as much as the spirits. Imagine having one (and just the one) special drink on your menu, such as a Tom Collins made the best Meyer lemons in season or bergamots for that matter. It’s about understanding their seasonality and the justification for their price point.
Citrus and acidity
Finding alternatives to citrus and the acidity it provides drinks has been on the forefront of bartenders minds for some time now. Many bartenders have turned to artificial acids such as malic acid and citric acid as substitutes, others have used verjus and vinegars. However, there are plethora of organic alternatives that we barely use, from sorrel to the ubiquitous dock leaf, raw rhubarb (although sparingly as it contains oxalic acid which can be noxious in sufficient quantities) to unripe strawberries and gooseberries, we should be exploring as many of these options as possible. There are plenty of producers using regenerative practices that grow all of the produce mentioned above.
The spirit industry’s reliance on monoculture crops
At the heart of the problem is that all spirit production was born out of the necessity to monetise excess yield. Whisk(e)y creates revenue out of excess grain production, rum excess sugar cane and molasses, vodka excess grain and potatoes and gin excess grain also. Brandy arguably was born out of the need to stabilise wine so that it could survive shipping across the globe but originally was still a way of preserving excess wine production. Mezcal/Tequila at first appear to be outliers as agave was always primarily used to produce alcohol, even as pulque (you could argue that Mezcal was a way of preserving excess pulque yield). However, aside from ancestral mezcal all of the above rely on monoculture crops as the foundation of their production process. The majority of these crops will be the product of intensive farming practises.
Fortunately, a new wave of spirit producers who question traditional production methods, is starting to emerge. Of particular note is Empirical Sprits of Copenhagen who are questioning what produce can be used to ferment and distil alcohol and also the classification of the spirit as whole, focusing on the flavour instead. Many of their spirits are a hybrid of sake production, using koji spores to inoculate heritage grains and low temperature distillation using a rotary evaporator. The hope that some new wave distiller will find a fermentable carbohydrate, that is the product of a perennial crop, farmed according to regenerative principles is intriguing and promising. In more immediate terms, more and more distillers, such as Nc'Nean distillery located on the west coast of Scotland, who source organic barley, grown in Scotland. Or the Oxford Artisan Distillery, who source all their heritage grains within a 50 mile radius of Oxford. Capreolus distillery based outside of Cirencester are also groundbreaking in their own right, producing inimitable eaux de vies by working with farmers all within a small radius and focusing on fruit of pristine quality.
Exploring local produce
Ultimately educating industry professionals about the need to convert to regenerative agriculture, should provide the impetus to explore the cornucopia of amazing produce the UK has to offer. We should be using these products to disrupt the homogeneity of intensively farmed produce and re-imagine what ingredients can be used in drinks, whilst highlighting the amazing breadth of flavour that can be found across Great Britain, from flavours associated with South American cuisine to tropical fruit often found across Asia.
If any of the above information has interested a great resource and one that is numerously referenced in the above is Restoration Agriculture (Real-World Permaculture for Farmers) by Mark Shepard.