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Silver Fern Farms Has Some ‘Food for Thought’ About Its Net-Zero Program

Silver Fern Farms’ herds are grass-fed all year round. In New Zealand, the climate, clean air, and plentiful pure water fuel the growth of lush, green pastures. The animals can eat and live as they would naturally — reducing stress and promoting better animal welfare, producing animals more naturally. The result is high-quality and tender red meat.

BBC StoryWorks chose to highlight how Whangara Farms, guided by the deep connection between the people and the land, are using New Zealand’s uniquely biodiverse farming environment and the role that Silver Fern Farms Net Carbon Zero program plays in supporting this.

It’s evident in the sustainable land management methods, which create the necessary conditions on farms that allow Whangara to produce the 100% grass-fed beef they supply to the Silver Fern Farms Net Carbon Zero program.

Environmental+Energy Leader interviewed Kate Beddoe, Silver Fern Farms Chief Sustainability & Risk Officer — a company profiled by the BBC regarding its environmental strides. 

E+E: Why did the BBC decide to showcase Silver Fern Farms in their film series? 

Silver Fern Farms and our Net Carbon Zero program were selected from more than 100 companies considered for inclusion in the“Food for Thought” series sponsored by FoodDrinkEurope, which looked at companies making positive strides producing food on a changing planet. We’re very pleased that BBC StoryWorks chose to highlight how Whangara Farms, guided by the deep connection between the people and the land, are using New Zealand’s uniquely biodiverse farming environment and the role our Net Carbon Zero program plays in supporting this. Silver Fern Farms and our partner Whangara Farms were chosen as examples for the “Food for Thought” series of how food and drink bring families, friends, communities, and cultures together.

E+E: Why does the BBC film feature Whangara Farms, a collective of Maori farms who work with Silver Fern Farms to participate in your Net Carbon Zero program?

Whangara Farms, owned by a collective of three Maori incorporations, prioritizes intergenerational care and value in the day-to-day running of its six farm units, which raise about 60,000 sheep and 8,000 cattle on an area of around 22,000 acres. Silver Fern Farms and Whangara Farms are partners with a shared purpose. We’re both dedicated to ensuring nature-positive food production, and to protecting the land for future generations.

E+E: How does the BBC film explore Maori concepts like kaitiakitanga (best translated as guardianship) that originally inspired the program and to make sure it continues?

The film “Guardians of the Land” highlights how Whangara Farms’ commitment to environmentally responsible production is inspired by the Maori concept of kaitiakitanga, or guardianship of the land and waters. It is based on traditional Maori worldviews and includes the conservation, replenishment and sustainability of the environment, and safeguarding it for the future. It is part of a complex social, cultural, economic and spiritual system; understanding kaitiaki is key to understanding the Maori worldview of relating to the world around us.

Kaitiakitanga is central to all they do at Whangara Farms. It’s evident in the sustainable land management methods, which create the necessary conditions on farm that allow Whangara to produce the 100% grass-fed beef they supply to the Silver Fern Farms Net Carbon Zero program. It is also showcased in the work they do in their community, including at the local primary school, Whangara School. There, the farm is actively working to support and celebrate the future kaitiaki of the land, not just to understand the implications and responsibilities of advocating and championing environmental wellbeing, but to get on with the business of doing it.

E+E: How does Silver Fern Farms’ show its commitment to lead food system change and address the climate impacts of red meat explained in this online BBC film series?

Net Carbon Zero is a unique program with activity occurring across our total value chain. This includes activity on-farm through carbon sequestration, as well as in-market by delivering an independently certified, USDA-approved, and trusted net carbon zero meat product into the hands of consumers. Rather than looking to off-site and external projects, 100% of end-to-end emissions in Silver Fern Farms’ Net Carbon Zero by Nature product have been inset – that is naturally sequestered by native on-farm vegetation. New Zealand has a uniquely biodiverse farming environment, with on-farm vegetation including regenerating native bush, woodlot forests, shelter belts, summer shade and winter animal shelter, and erosion and riparian planting.

Silver Fern Farms is supporting and incentivizing our farmers to protect, restore and add to the amount of native bush and tree plantings – gullies, fence lines, summer shade and shelter belts, so that our farm environments are better able to capture carbon, and become more biodiverse. This approach is our way of supporting and encouraging our farmers to care for the land. Thinking more holistically about the farm and New Zealand’s uniquely biodiverse farming environment encourages all of us to see the real value and positive benefits of traditionally unproductive or retired land.

E+E: How concerned are consumers about the growing planetary impact of their food purchasing choices?

Earth-friendly eating is a common belief and practice today, with 77% of consumers believing sustainability is important when selecting products to buy, up eight points from 2021.

More shoppers are making a value-based choice and voting to spend their money on grass-fed beef that comes from happy, low-stress animals living in beautiful pastures. This is a values choice, and consumers are voting with their dollars. The grass-fed category is growing at 21% — more than twice as fast as the total beef category (8.7%). Grass-fed was about 5% of the market about six years ago; now, it’s 10 to 12% of the retail environment.

U.S. consumers are mainly looking for taste, consistency, and health benefits, but they also like the positive animal welfare story and the environmental upsides attached to the grass-fed production system.

Silver Fern Farms herds are grass-fed all year-round. In New Zealand, the climate, clean air, and plentiful pure water fuel the year-round growth of lush, green pastures. The animals are raised year-round on this pasture, with the ability to roam and graze freely. The animals can eat and live as they would naturally — reducing stress and promoting better animal welfare. Our ability to grow quality, nutritious grass means we produce animals more naturally, with little intervention. The result is high quality, tasty, tender red meat. A diet of nutrient-rich grass produces natural marbling and gives a fine, delicate texture.

Grass-fed presents a bolder, beefier flavor. As an exporter and marketer, our pastoral farming system already has many of the attributes consumers are looking for. We continue to invest, innovate, and support those working on the land to ensure our farms are seen to be the best in the world.

In 2022, Silver Fern Farms began selling Net Carbon Zero by Nature branded grass-fed beef New York strip steaks, Angus ribeye steaks and premium ground beef to stores in New York City and Los Angeles and continues to expand distribution in additional cities. Net carbon zero beef is a big step forward and we are a bit ahead of the pack on that, with our connection with farmers. It’s a climate-friendly, environmentally advanced product that consumers can be confident to buy and feel good about for themselves, the planet, and the animal.

E+E: What is unique about New Zealand’s farming system and its many attributes that please consumers to eat red meat produced in New Zealand?

New Zealand is fortunate to have a uniquely biodiverse farming environment, but it’s also uniquely fragile. Our farmers have a connection to the land and are deeply invested in caring for their animals, and the complex natural system they manage.

Silver Fern Farms is the largest red meat producer in New Zealand. With our farmers, we are working hard to be a world-leading nature positive food producer. We don’t outsource our emissions mitigation, and instead recognize and incentivize our farmers for their efforts to create farm environments that better capture carbon, increase biodiversity, and support a path to nature positive food production.

New Zealand’s grass-based system optimizes natural resources and farming practices to minimize environmental impact. Farmers utilize a natural abundance of rainwater to grow grass, optimizing livestock growth to match the natural grass growth curve. Animals are raised year-round with the ability to roam and graze freely on a diverse diet of rich clover, rye grasses and conserved forages such as hay and silage. They eat and live as they would naturally, which in turn leads to tender red meat with an all-round better eating quality.

E+E: How does Silver Fern Farms describe its commitment to become a global leader in nature positive production and work with farmers to prove that rigorous nature-based accounting, regenerative techniques, and care at every step is central to the food system of the future?

While we are still early in this journey, we are accelerating our transition to a nature-positive red meat brand that incentivizes low emissions and regenerative farming practices. We have also shaped our capital investment program to support our sustainability goals. This includes investment in transitioning from using coal to using electricity and biomass, smart lighting, hot water system management and overall water use reduction.

We want to create a halo of understanding around all the aspects of sustainable red meat production. We want to be super clear on what we have done, what challenges we have ahead and what we are doing and plan to do about them and we aim to lead by doing.

We began an emissions reduction pilot program in 2019 with 17 farms across New Zealand, which has enabled us to quantify baseline farm emissions, sequestration levels, and opportunities for reduction of emissions on farm. From our learnings on this project, we plan to complete a verified scope three emission profile and target in place in 2024.

Our Net Carbon Zero products play a vital role in our plans for nature-positive food production and a climate-positive future. When consumers buy our Net Carbon Zero products, they are incentivizing our farmers for their efforts to create farm environments that are better able to capture carbon, increase biodiversity, and support nature-positive food production – techniques that are vital to the food systems of the future.

Our emissions measurements are undertaken and verified by independent organization Toitu Envirocare based on meeting the International Standards Organization ISO14067 product standard. They cover the whole life and care of our products end-to-end including from farm, processing, shipping, right to the consumers home, including disposal of packaging.

At the core of nature positive production is deeply understanding your natural resources and their limitations and matching your needs to them so you can use fewer inputs over time and to support farming in a way that helps to maintain and restore natural systems to support their use by future generations.

E+E: How is this planetary impact shining a spotlight on unsustainable practices and providing an opportunity for innovative, less intensive, and more careful farmers to access market premiums?

Increasing levels of public awareness about environmental and climate issues pose a risk to the reputation of companies who do not act to mitigate both their impact on the environment and the climate. This is especially important in industries like ours that are traditionally one of the leading carbon emitters across the Food and Beverage sector. Our customer and consumer-led approach is the driving force behind the transition to our low-emissions future and responding to spotlights shone on traditionally unsustainable practices.

Silver Fern Farms is incredibly proud to be supplied by farmers who want to be part of the solution to the climate crisis. Our farmers are managing their emissions, establishing new areas of vegetation on their farms, regenerating habitats, investing in new technology and working hard to respond to market signals. This is at the heart of what good farmers do. These are the farmers, and products, that will be at the forefront of solutions to the climate crisis, and Silver Fern Farms will be backing them all the way.

Greenwashing is a huge issue in the food system, and we are deeply concerned about the impact of this on consumers and their trust in producers. This is why Silver Fern Farms has prioritized science, evidence, independence, and authenticity in its product claims.

We are acting on climate change in concrete ways and on multiple fronts. Toitu Net Carbon Zero certification for our Net Carbon Zero program is one part of how we demonstrate the strength of our approach and respond to indications from customers that those not acting on climate change will lose preferred vendor status. Our investment in the Government Industry Joint Venture to help accelerate methane reduction technology is an important initiative to pursue a lower footprint for our products. In November 2022, we joined the Kai Commitment as a founding partner alongside other large food producers and retailers across New Zealand to champion food waste reduction initiatives across our supply chain and in support of United Nation goals – working towards more sustainable practices across the lifecycle of our products.

E+E: How can Silver Fern Farms interest energy and environmental managers in commercial and industrial operations?

We have committed to a range of bold initiatives to drive our vision, respond to consumer, and market trends and position Silver Fern Farms as a leader in sustainable food production through our Sustainability Action Plan. Our efforts are guided by our Sustainability Action Plan, which will have zero coal usage across our 14 processing plants by 2030, and we’ll halve our emissions from coal over the next two years.

We’re committed to supporting a holistic approach to farming focused on outcomes measurement and continuous improvement rather than input. We’re underpinning our approach on eight principles, which align with the New Zealand Farm Assurance Plus Program (NZFAP+) and will help us continue to meet consumer expectations for premium quality, sustainably grown red meat. These include minimizing soil disturbance, optimizing biodiversity, managing livestock grazing practices, protecting, and regenerating soil health, optimizing animal welfare, nurturing our farming communities, protecting and enhancing our natural environment, and reducing our carbon footprint.

We publish an annual scorecard on our progress against key targets. Our most recent report is available here.

E+E: How does Silver Fern Farms produce organic foods or food that doesn’t leave behind a negative footprint?

The number one benefit of our Net Carbon Zero beef is that consumers can be confident that every single kilogram of CO2 emissions associated with that product is counted and removed by vegetation growing on the farms where it was produced. Beef is the leading carbon emitter of all food types. Governments everywhere are looking at every way in which carbon emissions can be reduced. Increasingly they are resorting to regulation to compel producers to be transparent about their emissions, to initiate new labeling requirements and to levy or tax carbon producers. Retailers are very conscious of their own emissions profile, not only in terms of their operations and building footprints but also in which products they stock. While Silver Fern Farms is at the start of its journey, we are well ahead of the curve with Net Carbon Zero beef products in the market. We believe our method of utilizing on-farm vegetation rather than purchasing offsets is unique.

E+E: How is Silver Fern Farms meat packaging environmentally friendly?

In 2019, we made significant progress meeting our sustainability goals by achieving a reduction in our total energy use and becoming verified by Toitu Envirocare for our processing carbon footprint. However, on top of these accomplishments, one of the main ways we succeeded was by reducing the amount of plastic we use for our business.

We led a full product packaging refresh and developed a cardboard sleeve to replace the outer plastic packaging on our New Zealand retail packs. The new sleeve is sourced from sustainably managed forests and is curbside recyclable. This initiative built on the progress we had already made in reducing plastic across our business. Coupled with our long-term partnership with packaging partner Sealed Air and our 50% reduction in stretch wrap used for export pallets, this change resulted in Silver Fern Farms reducing plastic use by 80 tons annually across our supply chain through a combination of measures.

One of the biggest changes was the shift to “consumer-ready” packaging that includes pre-trimmed portions, a process intended to help minimize food waste both at the retail point of sale (where meat is traditionally butchered and repackaged) and with consumers concerned about portion control. Silver Fern Farms is also using vacuum-sealed packaging that extends the shelf life of the meat for an additional 25 days, while maintaining health and hygiene standards. We have also eliminated some plastic liners and opted for thinner gauge plastics for export. While we are studying ways of using recycled plastics, we haven’t been able to find a material that duplicates the shelf life achievable with current options available.

We hope to continue our work by further committing to decreasing our plastic use and investing in other sustainable initiatives. We firmly believe we can create positive change for our customers, farmers, and the environment, while continuing to craft high quality red meat products that are delicious, food safe and sustainable.

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