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Footprint Forum report: Getting into the weeds of ‘regen ag’

Speakers at a recent Footprint Forum were excited about the potential to transform farming through regenerative practices but challenges remain around financing and the risk of greenwash. By David Burrows.

Fairr play. Regenerative agriculture has captured the attention of pretty much every major food business on the planet. An analysis of 79 of the biggest agri-food firms by investor network Fairr, found 50 of them (combined worth: $3trn) mentioned regenerative agriculture initiatives in their public disclosures. 

Or not? But only 18 of that 50 have quantified company-wide targets for regenerative agriculture; just eight discuss metrics and data (with only four companies having established baselines to measure progress); while four have targets to financially support farmers to deploy regenerative practices. 

Ask the Q. These findings set the scene for this month’s Footprint Forum (in association with Nestlé Professional); a chance to dig into the weeds of the pros and cons of regenerative agriculture, the promises and the commitments, the premiums and the cash, the PR and the communications.

Can of worms. The two hours flew by, opening not just one but several cans of worms. These are indeed early days in the regenerative movement. There are more promises and pilots than results and revenues, but many food and drink companies are betting big on this transition as a means of tackling their huge scope 3 emissions and reversing biodiversity loss. This is all about moving from “less bad to more good”, explained Lee Truelove, head of regenerative farming at dairy cooperative First Milk. Fewer inputs, healthier soils and mixed farming rather than monocrops and factory farms could help reduce carbon emissions and lock away many more. Maybe.

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Need more input. In discussion of the benefits of regenerative agriculture, ‘outcomes’ is the word that crops up most often. Some of these are measureable but capturing and counting all the benefits is far from straightforward. “The data needs to come from the farm up,” said Patrick Holden, founder and chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust. “That’s how we create honesty.” 

Carbon contradiction. A focus on carbon alone is also risky, and could lead you down the path to further intensification, which runs contrary to the principles of regenerative agriculture. ”Carbon obviously is important,” said Truelove, “but I think regenerative farming is about delivering net good across carbon, biodiversity, water, social and animal welfare, rather than simply being less bad.”

Frustration with sequestration. But let’s, ahem, focus on carbon for a minute, because one of the most slippery topics relates to carbon sequestration – the process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide. Healthy soils can be a decent carbon sink, so too trees and hedgerows. But this is not that easy to track, and there are plenty of variables involved. Carbon sequestration in soils has “surely got to be part of the solution”, said Sir Robert Goodwill, chair of the environment, food and rural affairs committee of MPs, but ”most of us haven’t a clue how much carbon is in our soils”.

Appliance of science. Academics have begun testing some of the estimates and claims being made regarding the potential to sequester carbon in soils. And some say it’s not quite as big as perhaps some in the dairy and livestock sector think. Nestlé is one of those betting biggest on regenerative agriculture to meet its net-zero targets. The company buys 1% of the world’s agricultural output and is investing around £1bn to “spark” regenerative agriculture throughout its supply chain. “We’re not doing this to farmers, we’re doing it with them,” said Nestlé community regeneration lead Robin Sundaram.

Internal affairs. Sundaram spoke of a “fundamental rethink” in how to finance such a transition given that it is a “real shift in our expectations [of] what farmers are doing”. It’s also a significant cultural shift internally, he admitted. “You have to develop these long term partnerships and we can’t continue to do [things] the way we’ve always done it. And yeah, there was some pushback and some people have found that very, very difficult in procurement; but because it’s coming right from the top, they’re having to make that change,” he added.

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Nightmares. It all sounds super. Still, concern abounds about who it is that will foot the bill. For a lot of farmers who are on the treadmill of producing a single commodity for the market – and who already operate on often wafer-thin margins – it might be very difficult to get off (especially if yields initially drop). They will also look at those who were never on the treadmill in the first place – like many organic farmers – and wonder whether the grass really is greener. The biggest barrier is contract length, said Rich Clothier, MD at Wyke Farms. “I think the whole of the food chain needs a longer-term approach.”

Risk and reward. “As a farmer, you want to be rewarded for what you’re doing,” said Fidelity Weston, chairwoman of the Consortium of labelling for the environment, animal welfare and regenerative farming (Clear). “And we, as farmers, are being asked to make tremendous changes starting right now. Some of us have already been doing that in anticipation of this. And in order to be rewarded we need the marketplace to be able to recognise what we’re doing compared to other farmers. And at the moment, that’s very, very hard.” 

Labels: a sticky issue. The obvious way is to pop a ‘regeneratively farmed’ sticker on food and drinks, and add on a premium price-tag. Marketing this concept is another can of worms:  consumers like the notion of regenerative, but have no clue what it means, while businesses are divided on whether to certify it – let alone how. “Don’t put farmers in a straightjacket [with this],” said Efra’s Goodwill. There is “huge scope” for companies to use this to greenwash, added Clear’s Weston. 

Language barrier. In his book, ‘The world ending fire’, the US novelist, environmental activist and farmer Wendell Berry, wrote: “Once we allow our language to mean anything that anybody wants it to mean, it becomes impossible to mean what we say.” And so it is with ‘regenerative agriculture’ (or ‘regenag’ as a hashtag). Products are already appearing and certification schemes are attracting interest. There are understandable concerns about the food industry simply marking its own homework on all this.

Digging holes. Some have managed to resist the urge to join in. Sodexo is yet to use the term or make a commitment for fear of digging a hole they can’t get out of. “It’s a trending term,” said the catering firm’s director of sustainability Claire Atkins Morris. “We feel it’s not fair on the farming community or our customers to have something in place when it’s not been fully defined.”

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Making hay. Those that are already knee deep, like Nestlé, admit that the pressure is on to communicate what they are doing. A lot is being invested in this transition, Sundaram noted, and marketing managers will want to talk about it. There is also a risk, given the current spotlight on green claims, that companies could instead be shot down for communicating about their initiatives and simply shut up. 

Play fair. Talk can be cheap. Farmers are often seen as the bottom of the supply chain but they must be at the heart of this transition. Work that Vicki Hird, strategic lead on agriculture at the Wildlife Trusts, has done with a professor of accounting recently showed the rewards right now for farmers are not there and they’re not fair. Add the additional burden of shifting to regenerative agriculture and measuring all the outcomes from it and concerns inevitably rise. “This should be about a ‘relational’ rather than transactional process,” Hird said, “building understanding of what farms need and understanding that every farm is different.”

Speakers and Panellists in order of appearance

The Rt Hon Sir Robert Goodwill MP – former Minister of State, DEFRA, Chair of EFRA Committee
Robin Sundaram – Community Regeneration Lead, Nestlé UK & Ireland
Fidelity Weston – Chair, The Consortium for Labelling for The Environment, Animal Welfare & Regenerative Farming
Lee Truelove – Head of Regenerative Farming, First Milk
Rich Clothier – Managing Director, Wyke Farms
Dominic Watkins – Partner & Head of Consumer, DWF Law
Claire Atkins-Morris – Sustainability Director, Sodexo UK&I
Vicki Hird – Strategic Lead, Agriculture, The Wildlife Trusts
Patrick Holden – Founder & CEO, The Sustainable Food Trust

Held on March 7th 2024, this Footprint Forum, held in association with Nestlé Professional, was attended by representatives of the following organisations: Asahi UK, Burger King UK, CH&Co, CIWF, Compass Group, Consortium for Labelling for the Environment, DEFRA, DWF Law, Elior, Farm Animal Welfare, First Milk, Foodbuy, Footprint Media Group, Google, Harvey Nichols Group, House of Commons, House of Commons Climate & Environment Unit, Illy, Innocent Drinks, ISS, John Lewis Partnership, Kerry, KFC UK&I, Nature Metrics, Nestlé Professional, Nestlé UK, Rainforest Alliance, Reconomy, RSPCA Assured, SACAR, Size of Wales, Sodexo UK&I, Sopexa, SRA, Sysco, The Sustainable Food Trust, The Wildlife Trusts, Waitrose & Partners, WSH Group, Wyke Farms, Zero Carbon Forum.