What is regenerative agriculture and how can it help us get to net zero food systems? 3 industry leaders explain

By Tania Strauss, Head, Strategy and Global Projects, Food Systems Initiative, World Economic Forum & Pooja Chhabria, Digital Editor, World Economic Forum | January 5, 2023
  • Climate-smart and regenerative food systems can lead the race to achieve net zero, nature positive results by 2030.
  • Farmers are stewards of our natural resources and must come first to ensure equitable and resilient transitions.
  • Business leaders share their insights on how bold strategies and inclusive partnerships can unlock capital, technology and knowledge, and participation to solve these problems together.

Food systems are linked to many global challenges – from hunger to deforestation to being the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions after the energy sector. What if we reverse that role instead and realize the true potential of transforming food systems to be net zero, nature positive, and that nourishes all.

Climate-smart and regenerative agriculture measures designed to put farmers at the centre can improve crop yields and turn farmland and pastures into carbon sinks, reverse forest loss, optimize the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers and rethink global and local supply chains to be more sustainable, reducing waste.

Through natural climate solutions (NCS), food systems can contribute up to 37% of climate mitigation needed to reach 2030 climate goals. Yet, less than 2% of climate finance is directed to agri-food solutions. In the EU, a new Forum report on farmer-first climate strategies found that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could be lowered immediately by 6% a year if just one-fifth of EU farmers were supported to transition to net zero, boosting soil health and incomes by €2-9 billion.

Countries, companies and farmers are taking big bet strategies to unleash this potential. Still, scaling their efforts will take many more bold and smart partnerships, unlocking capital investment, adopting fit-for-purpose technology solutions and courageous leadership.

Here, three business leaders share insights on how bold strategies and inclusive partnerships can unlock capital, technology and knowledge, and participation to solve these problems together.

“Eliminating emissions on farms is essential to our ability to meet our net zero goal,” Jim Andrew, Executive Vice President, Chief Sustainability Officer, PepsiCo.

We need to break the mould and establish creative, long-term partnerships with suppliers, pre-competitive cooperation with other companies, alliances with governments, and non-profits to step change the speed and scale at which we can implement climate-smart agriculture.

Over the years, we’ve learned that three things need to happen for farmers to adopt regenerative agriculture practices. Financial programs need to be created to help de-risk a farmer’s transition. PepsiCo is helping with cost-share programs and creating new carbon markets and farmer loan programs through strategic partnerships.

However, money is not enough on its own, so the second thing we need to provide is technical assistance, sometimes including agronomic advice tailored to each farmer’s individual fields and crops. Finally, farmers need to be part of a community of peers who are trying similar things and can share learnings. No one organization can address all of those needs on its own – it will take partnerships and collaboration to deliver the holistic package of support that is needed, but when that happens, we believe that farmers will be more resilient, crops will yield more, and our planet will reap the benefits.

At PepsiCo, we source over 25 crops across 30 countries and support more than 100,000 agricultural jobs, and about one-third of our annual emissions come from our agricultural supply chain. That means that eliminating emissions on farms is essential to our ability to meet our net zero goal.

As we continue to take action to achieve PepsiCo’s climate target and reduce on-farm emissions, one thing rises to the surface again and again – forming robust, cross-sector partnerships is essential. We need people to work with people they’ve never worked with before. Regardless of industry, decarbonizing is incredibly complex, and creative collaborations will enable us to reach the world’s 1.5-degree target, together.

“Only by working together can we build the food system of the future,” Anke Kwast, Vice President, Climate and Nature Roadmap, Yara International.

We know that today’s food production systems are faced with fundamental challenges:

  • We must produce more nutritious and affordable food to feed a growing world population.
  • We must transform food production to cut greenhouse gas emissions, build healthier soils, and support biodiversity. And thereby create a more sustainable, resilient, and fair value chain.
  • We must ensure that food producers are incentivised to care for their land while earning a sustainable income.

Regenerative farming is a systematic approach to adopting the best sustainable practices that impact nature and climate positively. It is about producing more food while using less of the planet’s resources. We need to support farmers to cut greenhouse gas emissions and protect their soils while delivering the necessary yields and crop quality to feed the world.

Breakthrough innovations to accelerate regenerative farming include digital farming solutions, soil health analytics, green and low-carbon Nitrates, and organic-based fertilizers.

We are fully committed to partnering with farmers, food companies, and legislators to realise the vision of a nature positive food future. Through our current partnerships with the World Economic Forum’s Carbon+ Coalition, WBCSD’s OP2B platform, the SAI Platform, and the IMAGINE Food Collective, we have learned that implementing regenerative farming on the ground requires all hands on deck. Key learnings include:

  • Each landscape is unique and needs a context-specific approach.
  • Each farmer should measure and report progress compared to their own current baseline.
  • The full value chain must endorse the paradigm shift to regenerative farming, but it’s important to build step-by-step on existing solutions and innovations.

Only by working together can we build the food system of the future. We can only scale up regenerative farming to restore nature and reverse climate change with science-based targets and actions.

“We urgently need to replenish and regenerate the resources required to grow our food,” Dorothy Shaver, Global Head of Sustainability, Nutrition, Unilever

Currently, food is a key contributor to climate change, deforestation, biodiversity loss, hunger, and obesity, while food is being wasted. Our food system is not resilient to climate change or the impact of crises due to the results of conventional, harmful farming practices paired with overreliance on too few types of crops.

We urgently need to replenish and regenerate the resources required to grow our food. About 52% of agricultural soils are degraded, food is the number one user of water, and some experts say we have less than 30 years of water supply left. In comparison, there is a steep decline in farmers (from 44% to 26% in 9 years, based on data from the International Labor Organization).

This is why Unilever has committed to investing in the transition to regenerative agriculture. This means farming in a way that improves soil health, biodiversity, water efficiency, climate resiliency and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

For over 12 years, we have been working with suppliers and smallholder farmers to grow food sustainably following the Sustainable Agriculture Code and have now implemented the Regenerative Agriculture Principles, with a 90-project roadmap to 2026.

Partnerships are underway with farmers working in soybean to plant cover crops to reduce soil erosion, rice growers to decrease water use and methane emissions. And dairy farmers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These three examples are part of the Unilever-led multistakeholder partnerships started in 2021 and 2022.

We have more to do. We must work collaboratively to build a resilient, productive, nutritious, and delicious food system that benefits people and the planet.

We will move forward with speed to partner to grow and produce food that nourishes people, improves the health of our land, and benefits farmers.

This article was first published by the World Economic Forum.

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