In the past 12 months we have seen a proliferation of the term regenerative agriculture across the food system – from farmer, to emerging brand, to input providers, to global food corporates – representing many, many different levels of understanding and approaches to engagement in the space. During this time, the RFSI team has had the opportunity to attend and participate in several convenings that have allowed us a view into how different corners of the food system – including more mainstream food and agriculture stakeholders – are stepping into the space. From Amsterdam to Anaheim to Chicago to Minneapolis, here are some of the lessons I’ve taken away from these experiences:
Regenerative Agriculture is No Longer a Fringe Topic
Despite that percentage of acres under regenerative management in the U.S. remains under 5% and overall consumer awareness of the term is still relatively minuscule, the past 24-36 months have seen an enormous uptick in climate commitments from food corporates, which has brought increased attention to the role regenerative agriculture can play in addressing Scope 3 emissions in food supply chains. Whereas just three years ago regenerative appeared to be a fringe topic, in 2023 many of the major food corporates are taking steps toward engaging in regenerative agriculture. PepsiCo, Kellogg, Mars, Cargill, and McCain Foods are among those who have joined early entrants like General Mills and Danone. From financial commitments, like PepsiCo’s 2022 establishment of a $1.25 billion Green Bond, to Kellogg’s commitment to reducing scope 3 GHG emissions by 15% by 2030 in part through programs like InGrained, to McCain Foods’ work on a regenerative agriculture framework and partnership with financial institutions to help finance transition – there is no shortage of activity in the space.
Scope 3 Tunnel Vision
Mainstream agriculture and agribusiness is paying attention but regenerative agriculture is still largely viewed as a Scope 3 issue and not for the systemic solution it can be. The impetus for changes in supply chains comes primarily from the fact that global food and agriculture are responsible for more than 30% of GHG emissions. Imminent investor and regulatory pressure, as well as growing pressure from consumers, has turned focus to reducing these emissions, primarily via own supply chains. While these reductions are important, it’s important to understand they alone do not define regenerative agriculture outcomes.
As regenerative systems builder, Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, shared at one convening, “Regenerative is not a set of practices.” To his point, what is under-discussed in the conversations around regenerative in the mainstream, are the other ecological and social benefits – like biodiversity, improved farmer livelihoods, and thriving rural communities – that a systemic approach can lead to. What was completely non-existent in the conversations I heard from mainstream players at the events I attended in the past year is the potential to increase the nutritional quality of food through better soil management practices. As the conversation continues to develop – and it is evolving rapidly – these points need to play a bigger role.
Data is King
The old saying, “you can’t manage what you can’t measure,” is a resounding theme as the food system at large attempts to wrap their head around regenerative agriculture. Measurable data points will increasingly be relied on to help tell the story of beneficial outcomes. Right now, those data points come from what is most easily understood to this point about regenerative at the farm level – that is, how practices result in carbon sequestration (although there is still plenty unknown here), soil health metrics, and yield. As understanding increases, so too will the robustness of the data that can be collected around it.
In parallel, as both large CPG companies and the investment community seek to better understand financial investment in the space, financial data and measurement of outcomes is also top of mind. The two questions that apply to both situations – measurement of supply chain outcomes and financial outcomes – are:
- Are we measuring the right things to truly build regeneration and resilience?
- Is there a need to pool data across the sector, so that we can move faster and more efficiently to the outcomes we hope for? (And if so, who will do this?)
Pilot is a Dirty Word
Food companies of all sizes have been working on regenerative agriculture pilot projects around the world – learning about how practices can be implemented and adopted in different regions and across different crops. While driven by good intentions for increased data and understanding around regenerative agriculture, the industry at large is reaching a tipping point. I first heard this frustration loud and clear in late 2022, with farmers and others ready for the regenerative transition at scale calling for less talk about pilots and more action.
Fast forward to mid-2023 and it was expressed by several larger food system corporates that “pilot” has become a forbidden word internally. While I think this was meant (in part) as a sort of joke, that growing frustration has clearly translated into an awareness among companies and their sustainability teams that it’s time to turn attention to implementation of larger-scale programs.
Technical Assistance is Top of Mind
While the frustration with pilots can be understood, I do believe this next take-away was a result of the work that companies have put into learning from theirs and others’ pilot projects in the space. I heard a clear and fairly consistent understanding from most of the stakeholders working on their supply chains that technical assistance was an essential component of supporting the on-farm transition. Whether it was creating a framework for farmers to adopt or offering financial incentives for practices – or both – most in the room understood that TA needed to work alongside these other tools. This was heartening to see and gave me hope that the space can continue to innovate in integrating more tools and resources to support successful outcomes, both at the farm level and eventually further downstream.
Collaboration is Key
Transitioning to regenerative food systems, and transforming food supply chains for large scale CPGs specifically, will require collaboration with outside stakeholders that can bring different expertise to the table. The USDA’s Partnership for Climate Smart Commodities program, which has funded 141 projects, has shone a bright light on the imperative for cross-system partnerships for agriculture transformation. Through sharing around these projects and others, we are learning a lot more about the different ways collaboration can facilitate transition and these have continued to be shared in the media and at events in the past year. We’ve seen how technical assistance providers, like Propagate, partnering with CPGs can support farmers transitioning to new crops and systems. We see how data tech platforms, like Regrow, can help companies meet goals by helping inform company decisions. And we’ve seen how companies can partner with capital institutions to create better financial incentives to derisk transition.
Missing Middle… and End
In the four events that our team attended and spoke at in the past year, there was a glaring hole in the attendee make-up and the topics covered: the middle supply chain and emerging (non-corporate) brands. At RFSI, we often talk about the missing middle supply chain of the regenerative food system – a lack of processing, infrastructure, and overall off-takers – that, for many farmers, can help reduce the risk of growing regenerative crops. This was absent from conversation as was dialogue around (and attendance from) emerging brands who are also working to build regenerative food systems. I can’t help but think (and know from our own experiences at RFSI) that the conversations are more robust and the outcomes more successful when all the players are in the room.
Still Figuring It Out
Mainstream interest in regenerative agriculture is growing quickly, as evidenced by the dramatic increase in commitments and initiatives in recent years, as well as by the emergence of new events for food corporates exploring the space. (Note: we couldn’t attend all these events last year because not all existed!)
Despite the amount of work that needs to be done across systems, in the past 12 months, I’ve met person after person from diverse organizations across the system who each are seeking to learn how we do this right. That’s miles ahead of where we were 5 years ago. As this journey plays out across the food system, it will be important to keep the regenerative movement close to its roots – remembering that regeneration is much more than a single practice. Scaling true regeneration and systems resilience will require:
- Looking beyond Scope 3 emissions and carbon sequestration to account for all the multi-faceted potential benefits that regenerative systems offer.
- Including all stakeholders – from farmer to end consumer – to build systemic solutions that mimic nature.
- Continuing to learn from activities today in order to innovate new ways to build regenerative systems.
What lessons have you taken away from the past year? We’d love to hear them! Email us here.
Sarah Day Levesque is Managing Director at RFSI & Editor of RFSI News. She can be reached here.