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How regenerative agriculture can sow the seeds of change

EOS Insight
21 April 2022 |
In the fifth article in our EOS Insights series on the social and environmental impacts of the global food system, Sarah Swartz explores the benefits of regenerative agriculture.

Fast reading

  • Regenerative agriculture practices improve soil health, biodiversity and watersheds in addition to enhancing ecosystem services.
  • Companies should set targets to source ingredients from regenerative agriculture and work with farmers to implement the change.
  • A true regenerative strategy should also address the social issues of inequity within agriculture.

Widespread use of fertilisers and pesticides may have increased crop yields and prevented global famines, but this more intensive form of agriculture has also had a negative impact on the environment. With the global population predicted to rise by another two billion people between 2019 and 2050 we must find a way to feed the world sustainably.

Previous articles in this series highlighted the climate impacts of agriculture and the food system’s dependencies on ecosystem services and biodiversity. This article explores regenerative agriculture as a solution to adequately feed the growing population while creating positive environmental and social impacts.

What is regenerative agriculture?

Regenerative agriculture generally refers to a set of practices and principles that increase biodiversity, enrich soil, improve watersheds and enhance ecosystem services. The concept is not new. Indigenous populations have employed traditional ecological knowledge for centuries. Specific regenerative farming practices include no till, cover cropping, diversified cropping, silvopasture, and ally cropping. Organic agriculture practices can overlap with these and promote healthy soils, ecosystems and people. Although regenerative agriculture practices are executed at the farm level, food manufacturers, retailers and investors can also play a role by helping to implement and promote regenerative agriculture practices.

Our food system depends on ecosystem services and biodiversity, and, as climate change and other environmental and social crises threaten these, investors face financial, reputational and long-term risks. To drive a system-wide change in how food is produced, we expect companies with significant agricultural supply chains to encourage and support regenerative agriculture through a clear strategy, with disclosed supply chain risk governance.

Crucially, this includes measuring and disclosing the outcomes that the regenerative agricultural strategy is having on biodiversity, soil health, carbon sequestration and other key indicators. Companies should set targets to source ingredients from regenerative agriculture and work with farmers through long-term relationships to support the transition to regenerative agriculture. Greenwashing in regenerative agriculture has become a concern, and companies can mitigate this risk by robustly defining supply chain best practices and monitoring the agricultural supply chain through audits and third-party assurance.

A true regenerative strategy should also address the social issues of inequity within agriculture. The voices of indigenous and minority peoples must be included, and the historical and current discrimination within agriculture, including land theft, unequal access to capital and structural racism, must be repaired. As an example, the right of indigenous peoples to give or withhold free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) for activities occurring on or impacting their lands could be a standard applied to regenerative agriculture.

Our engagement approach

We have engaged on regenerative agriculture with companies within the agriculture value chain, including food and beverage manufacturers, retailers, a paper packaging company, and companies that provide agricultural products. We asked several companies to set regenerative agriculture transition targets and to report on measurable environmental and social impacts and outcomes.

Through engagement, we have seen emerging best practice from companies advancing regenerative agriculture. As part of its broader Positive Agriculture strategy, PepsiCo has set a 2030 goal to “spread regenerative farming practices across seven million acres” which it believes will eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. Cargill has focused its regenerative agriculture strategy around farmers, partnering to provide not only training, technical support and measurement assistance, but also compensation and cost sharing to assist in the transition to regenerative practices. Recognising the importance of regenerative agriculture outcomes, General Mills is implementing technologies to measure and quantify impacts such as the use of satellite imagery, sensors and soil tests. Ingredion, which focused half its regenerative agriculture goal on crops grown in high-risk watersheds, validates the implementation of sustainable farm practices through on-farm audits. Through partnerships, Danone created a regenerative agriculture scorecard to define regenerative agriculture practices at various levels of implementation and as a guide for farmers and other stakeholders.

While there is broad agreement that regenerative agriculture practices improve soil health, thus underpinning water retention, efficiency, resiliency and farmer-livelihood benefits, more research is needed to understand its potential to influence climate change through carbon sequestration. Additionally, guidance from alliances and networks such as the Taskforce on Nature-Related Financial Disclosures (TNFD) and the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform will help to standardise how companies report their nature-related impacts, risks and dependencies, including regenerative agriculture transition risks and opportunities.

To increase both ecosystem resiliency and biodiversity in the long term, we need a new agricultural revolution, one that drives a transition towards a sustainable, nutritious, and equitable system of regenerative agriculture. Through engagement, investors can encourage companies to adopt regenerative agriculture transition strategies with effective governance, measurement, and disclosure, to mitigate the climate, biodiversity, and other environmental and social risks posed by the current agricultural value chain.

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