With major food brands making sweeping promises to adopt regenerative agriculture in their supply chains, we take a look at what it will take to go from pilot projects to scale in the latest issue of The Ethical Corporation magazine

In June, investors representing $17.45 trillion in combined assets called on the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to produce a clear roadmap to achieve a sustainable global food system by 2050.

Food systems account for around a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and even if fossil fuel emissions were eliminated today,  the investors pointed out, emissions from the agriculture, forestry and land use sectors alone would make it impossible to stay within 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming.

And it is not just due to CO2 emissions from deforestation to make room for crops such as cocoa and soya, and heavy use of agricultural chemicals. According to the FAIRR investor network, which organised the statement, agriculture accounts for 40% of human-generated methane emissions, with the digestive processes of cattle and other livestock alone accounting for 4% of all global emissions – twice the impact of the aviation sector.

This year, we’ve already seen the impacts of just 1.1C of increased warming since pre-industrial times, with crop yields decimated by unprecedented drought across the globe, and the devastating flooding in Pakistan, which at last count had swept away 1.6 million houses, 750,000 head of livestock and swamped 2 million acres of farmland.

The FAO and the U.N. World Food Programme warned earlier this summer that millions more people are being pushed into extreme food insecurity as a result of overlapping crises of climate shocks, impacts from COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine.

Last year at this time UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres convened the UN Food Systems Summit, which called for action at all levels to speed the widespread adoption of more regenerative agricultural practices. Proponents say practices such as minimal tillage and keeping the land green with cover crops, will restore soils depleted by decades of intensive industrial-scale agriculture, boosting their capacity to absorb CO2.

(Credit: Jennifer Larsen Morrow/Shutterstock)

It will also fight biodiversity loss, improve water retention and improve farmer resilience in a rapidly warming world.

Among those backing this global agenda are giant global food brands, including Nestle, Unilever, Danone and PepsiCo, which have set ambitious targets to  empower farmers in their supply chains to use regenerative methods as part of their net-zero commitments.

But their "nature-positive" efforts so far have been limited to pilot projects. In this issue of The Ethical Corporation magazine we assess what it will take for them to grow to the scale needed to help transform food systems. 

We start with Europe, which has set targets to reduce fertiliser use by 20%, chemical pesticide use by 50% and reduce nutrient loss by 50% by 2030 as part of its Farm to Fork strategy to reduce agricultural emissions. Angeli Mehta reports on a plethora of pilots by corporates, but hears that lack of industry alignment is one barrier slowing progress. The Science Based Targets initiative, however, is developing new guidance for accounting for land-based carbon removals, which should help bring clarity.

The UK is no longer in the EU, but there, too, governments are trying to incentivise more sustainable agricultural practices as part of its climate strategy. Mehta speaks to companies, including Nestle and PepsiCo, on how they are addressing the complexity of implementing sustainable practices in their supply chains.

Regenerative agriculture is even more nascent in the vast industrial-scale farms in the U.S., where $14.2 billion in federal farm subsidies a year prioritise yield maximisation at the expense of soil health and farmers’ income. But as Sarah LaBrecque reports, policy changes are afoot, while General Mills is partner in a new Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, which is giving credits to farmers for improved ecosystem services. Meanwhile Unilever, PepsiCo, Cargill and ADM are working together to bring regenerative agriculture to farmers in Iowa.

Most of the crops the world relies on for food have to be grown and ploughed up annually, leading to excessive fertiliser use, water pollution and soil carbon loss. Angeli Mehta reports on global research on planting more resilient perennial crops.  These include a wild perennial grass called Kernza, that the Land Institute in the U.S. expects to yield as much grain as annual wheat.

(Credit: Livelihoods Funds)

The global wine industry is regarded as a canary in the coal mine for climate change due to grapes’ sensitivity to changes in the weather. Mike Scott looks at how winemakers are adapting to become more resilient.

Mark Hillsdon looks at how the beef and dairy industry is responding to the pressure it is coming under, from investors, consumers and policymakers, to cut methane emissions and reduce the huge amounts of water used to irrigate fodder crops such as maize and alfalfa. There are pilot projects, from using seaweed in cattle feed to better management of pasture land and drip irrigation, but also questions about whether the industry is moving anywhere near fast enough.

He also looks at silvopastoralism, a form of livestock production that works with nature, rather than against it, and how it is being practiced by farmers in Brazil, Kenya and the UK. 

Africa is at the sharpest end of the global food crisis, with a fifth of its population facing chronic hunger. But as Mark Hillsdon reports, harnessing regenerative agriculture could be a lifeline for its 350 million smallholder farmers. He examines how companies like Nestle are trying to move their African ingredient-sourcing onto a more sustainable footing.

Karen Luckhurst looks at why companies including Microsoft and Shopify are paying elevated prices to buy offsets in biochar projects, a technology that uses up agricultural waste residues, turning them into renewable heat and a natural fertiliser that raises yields and acts as a carbon sink.

And with retailers, big brands and commodity traders now backing initiatives to reduce deforest risk from soy farming, Mark Hillsdon asks whether progress can come fast enough to save the Cerrado in Brazil.

We close this bumper issue with a comment piece from Matthew Spencer, global director of IDH – The Sustainable Trade Initiative, who considers how new rules from the EU banning the import of commodities associated with deforestation could have a multiplier effect – positively influencing entire supply chains. 

One message from this issue that resonated with me is that farmers will only forsake chemical inputs and adopt new, regenerative practices is they are in the driving seat, empowered with the necessary skills, and most importantly the finance to pay them for the priceless ecosystem services we need them to provide.

Plenty of food for thought for now. In December we’ll be back with an in-depth look at how the finance industry is stepping up to the transition.

FAIRR  FAO  deforestation  sustainable agriculture  beef and dairy  SBTi  IDH  Livelihoods Funds 

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