It was lights, camera, action for Natural Grocers last week, as the grocery company founded on a commitment to nutrition education premiered "Regenerative Renegades"—the first in what is expected to become a series of educational documentaries from the Lakewood, Colo.-based retailer.
Following catered refreshments, including a kombucha bar for more than 40 industry members, University of Colorado (CU) students and faculty, Natural Grocers shoppers and media who gathered on Feb. 26 for the screening at the Jake Jabs Events Center at the CU Denver Business School, the film’s powerful message began to roll.
“Sustainability isn’t good enough,” said Matt Maier, one of the film’s stars and owner of Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed regeneratively raised beef in Becker, Minn. “We can’t sustain and expect to survive in the current state our agriculture is in—we have to do better. We have to regenerate."
Developed and produced by Natural Grocers, the documentary focuses on the ways in which restoring animals to living on the land returns balance to natural ecosystems and supports long-term economic stability.
“Conventional agriculture today is about depletion: How long can we live on this soil before it actually can’t produce anymore? If we lose our soil, we’ve lost everything,” said Maier, who then asked, "What’s bigger than regenerating the soil and our health?"
Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds and enhances the ecosystem. It also aims to capture carbon in soil and above ground, thereby reversing atmospheric accumulation. A growing number of farming experts believe regenerative agriculture is our greatest hope for healthier soils and more harvests.
Following the film’s screening, Natural Grocers Products Standards Manager Christie Zimmerman led a panel discussion that brought together thought leaders to discuss regenerative business models and more.
“Sustainability is maintaining the status quo. It’s kicking the can down the road environmentally,” said panelist Bobby Gill, director of development and communications for the Strasburg, Colo.-based Savory Institute.
The institute’s mission is the large-scale regeneration of the world’s grasslands through holistic management to address the global issues of desertification, climate change and food and water insecurity.
“Natural Grocers is one of very few retailers who recognizes the value of [lifetime grazed],” said Maier. Thousand Hills Lifetime Grazed does not allow confinement feeding, grain byproducts or GMO plants. Its cattle are always on the land, managed holistically, and therefore, regenerating soil and grasslands.
Zimmerman explained how Natural Grocers has helped to clarify quality standards for meat and seafood and make sense of lifetime grazed for the industry and shoppers alike. In October of last year, Natural Grocers introduced a ranking system for its fresh and frozen meat selections.
The ranking system identifies meat and seafood products as bronze, silver and gold. Gold, which includes all bronze and silver requirements, also ensures the product is certified organic and/or other regenerative farming practices (for beef, poultry and pork); 100% U.S. domestic (ruminants, poultry and pork); and wild caught and sustainably certified (seafood and boar).
Panelists then addressed the growing consumer confusion in the marketplace with regard to products labeled as “grass-fed.” Many products are labeled as such, despite the fact that the animal from which it is made only fed on grass for a brief portion of its life.
American Grassfed Association (AGA) Certified Grassfed ruminant animals are born, raised and finished on open grass pastures where perennial and annual grasses, forbs, legumes, brassicas, browse and post-harvest crop residue without grain are the sole energy sources, with the exception of mother’s milk, from birth to harvest.
“You need to vote with your fork,” said Carrie Balkcom, executive director of the AGA, addressing the audience. She estimates that 85% of the products sold as a grass-fed product in the U.S. are raised elsewhere and merely finished in the U.S. “We’re trying to bring honesty back to labeling in this country.”