Why regenerative agriculture could be key to our sustainable future
Conventional methods are compromising the resilience of our ecosystems – but responsible food companies are championing ways of farming that improve them
With concern mounting over the negative consequences of intensive farming, and consumers’ growing interest in the environmental impact of their food, increasing numbers of European farmers are embracing new ways of growing their crops. Regenerative agriculture, developed around techniques that improve soil health – with the aim to capture carbon back into the earth – is seen as a potentially key development in farming, as the agricultural sector works to balance feeding a multiplying population with tackling the urgent threat of climate change.
It is estimated that farming currently accounts for about one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions and erodes 24bn tonnes of topsoil a year, equivalent to an area the size of Greece, according to EIT Food, a European Knowledge and Innovation Community.
The body believes Europe’s farmland may only support a further 60 harvests until a change in direction becomes essential. “Through population growth, we are going to have to boost output significantly to make sure everybody has access to healthy food,” says Dr Andy Zynga, Chief Executive of EIT Food.
As well as helping the soil to support higher levels of farming, regenerative agriculture has a capacity for carbon reduction that’s viewed as a major benefit for farmers.
Rather than being a net producer of carbon, we can actually swallow the carbon that other industries can’t do anything about, says Will Shakeshaft, Managing Director of Greens of Soham, part of the Spearhead International group, which farms vegetables across 4,000 hectares in the UK.
“One of the really exciting points is that maybe there's a way for farmers to generate more income if they apply those practices,” Zynga says. Indeed, corporate buyers are encouraging the environment-friendly approach. The food and drink producer PepsiCo, which works directly with thousands of farmers in Europe, is championing regenerative agriculture as part of a suite of measures aimed at putting sustainability at the heart of its business.
“The scale of the transformation that we have ahead of us is to bring regenerative farming practices to all 7m acres that we source crops from across the globe,” says
Silviu Popovici, Chief Executive Officer of PepsiCo Europe. “By 2030 we want to eliminate 3m tonnes of greenhouse gases globally. Many farmers we directly work with have been pioneering these practices. We now need to scale and get the companies we work with to do similar things – then we’ll make an impact.”
Regenerative agriculture mixes traditional practices such as crop rotation with hi-tech tools including sensors and apps.
Across Europe, PepsiCo has been using a technology called iCrop to help provide live data on many aspects of crop production and performance that can identify improvement opportunities in areas such as soil quality and water usage. In Spain, this tool has been applied to improve potato crop irrigation. It helped to increase accuracy of watering from 48 per cent to 93 per cent in two years. According to PepsiCo’s VP of Agricultural Procurement, David Wilkinson, “technology and data are becoming as important on the farm as the tractor once was. We are empowering our farmers with insights that give them the confidence and ideas to grow their crops better. I think this is one of the things that we, as a responsible buyer, should continue to do.”
Europe is at the forefront of responsive farming techniques, partly because of concern over issues such as biodiversity loss and overuse of chemical fertilisers, and partly because current agricultural models are leading to an over-reliance on expensive subsidies. At the same time, says Shakeshaft, “We’ve seen margins in farming drop. We want to be in a position where we can invest in agriculture, attract new people to the industry, be less reliant on agricultural chemicals [and] fertilisers and manage our water better.”
Innovation will certainly be a game-changer on farms, particularly in terms of looking at low-emission alternatives to fertilisers. As part of its regenerative farming plans, PepsiCo is intending to use waste potato peelings from manufacturing Walkers crisps, firstly in its biomass generator to provide renewable gas to power production. This material will then be converted into a fertiliser for farmers that could be up to 70 per cent lower in emissions compared with conventional fertiliser production.
With a burst of new solutions and technologies emerging onto the market, a specific challenge is how to bring clarity to farmers on what delivers tangible improvements in soil health.
PepsiCo’s Wilkinson explains: “There are no standard definitions or agreed measurements at the moment, and this means you are operating in the dark. Salespeople promising miracles make it hard to cut through to what actually works; it can be a debilitating choice for many farmers, so many just keep doing what they have been doing.”
It is an area the company is looking at through the sharing of best practices among its farmers.
Indeed, despite pressure to change, the reform of Europe’s common agricultural policy (CAP) carried out in 2020 with the intention of fostering a more sustainable and competitive farming sector “mostly maintains the status quo,” says Bérénice Dupeux, Senior Policy Officer for Agriculture at the European Environmental Bureau. “The next step is a European sustainable food system law,” she adds. “We should set the general framework for a food system for the years to come.”
For the moment, farmers, agricultural buyers and consumers will need to work together on ways to accelerate the sustainability of food production. Bertrand Swiderski, Chief Sustainability Officer at the French multinational retailer Carrefour, says it is important to see a joined-up approach adopted by all stakeholders involved in the food value chain.
“Individual action is not enough to create the transformational change needed in the food sector; collective action is the only way to move the industry forward. This ensures that all actors, including competitors, are moving forward in the same direction,” says Swiderski.
This scale of change may be needed to convince some farmers of the wisdom of changing the traditional practices to improve yields and profitability. “The main challenge is to engage with the farmers and to show them the benefits they may get from the farm in a simplistic way,” observes Shakeshaft. Asking all of Europe’s food producers to unlearn the conventional farming methods to which they’ve dedicated their efforts for decades will not be an easy task, and will ultimately have to be led by significant consumer demand for more sustainably grown crops. But regenerative agriculture offers a clear route to sustainability — and more and more farmers are choosing it.