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Delivering Food that doesn’t ‘cost the Earth’


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What is regenerative agriculture and why is it important? This article seeks to address those questions, as well as highlight some real life examples of implementation within major global organisations, and summarise emerging technologies supporting more widespread adoption.

 

The world is faced with a mammoth challenge. The global population currently stands at just under 8 billion and is projected to reach 10 billion by 2050. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. But our food system is broken. There are already in excess of 800 million people living in hunger around the globe, and many more are facing food insecurity and undernourishment. The situation continues to worsen as we find ourselves in the ‘perfect storm’ of conflict, climate change and Covid-19, causing unprecedented disruption to supply chains and driving up the cost of food to record levels. Without intervention the situation will only continue to worsen.

 

So what can we do? History shows us it’s not just a case of producing more food. We demonstrated that it is possible to drive up yields by intensively farming the land using inputs such as pesticides, fertilisers and growth hormones to maximise outputs. But this came at a cost. Intensive farming practices have been draining soil of organic carbon content, polluting water systems, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and diminishing biodiversity. Intensification of farming has resulted in vast quantities of soil being degraded so severely they are no longer productive. As a result, rainforests and other biodiverse environments with rich, fertile soil are being destroyed to replace the loss. Intensive farming is not the solution to global hunger. So what is? Is it possible to feed the global population in a way that is sustainable, nutritious and economical? Certainly not without substantial change.

 

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) have called for “transformative change in our food systems” – change not only in how we produce food, but also (perhaps more controversially) in how we consume it too. On average, in high income countries, 50% of calorific intake is from ultra-processed foods (UPFs). UPFs are often cheaper and more convenient than fresh, high quality meat, fruit and vegetables, but they also lack essential nutrients and can consequently drive malnutrition, even in over-fed populations. The need for change is clear, but how can we deliver this?

 

Regenerative Agriculture

One approach is regenerative agriculture, the idea that food and farming systems positively contribute to ecosystem recovery and conservation whilst simultaneously generating high quality food. It isn’t a single solution, rather a series of farming practices that can help restore soil health, better manage resource usage, increase climate resilience and support biodiversity recovery. It recognises that farms are part of a larger ecosystem, and that they need to work within these ecosystems in a way that is mutually beneficial. There are numerous regenerative farming approaches, and applicability to any given farm will depend on factors including geography, climate, scale and output. A small number of the key practices are summarised here:

 

  • Cover cropping: the use of plants to protect the soil by increasing fertility and reducing erosion, improving pest and weed management, boosting water retention and supporting native wildlife. Cover crops could be secondary cash crops, or could instead serve as mulch post-harvest to recycle nutrients back into the ground
  • Companion planting: strategically planting compatible plants together to the farming system’s advantage, for example, planting nitrogen fixing plants close to cash crops to fertilise the soil, or large leaf plants to block sunlight and minimise weed growth
  • Mob grazing – short duration, high intensity grazing at higher grass cover allowing longer rest periods thereby minimising the impact on the soil. Increasing plant diversity can also improve soil health and enable grazing for longer periods through the year
  • No-till / minimum tillage farming – a practice which improves soil integrity and reduces erosion and run-off (which can lead to pollution of local water systems). It promotes water retention and enables communities of soil micro-organisms to flourish. Together the improvement in soil quality supports the increased growth of nutrient dense crops.

 

Ag-tech integration

There is an abundance of technology to support regenerative farming. Here we provide just a few examples of technologies being developed to support more sustainable food production

Satellite imagery – images from satellites can be used to assess the condition of crops, soil moisture and fertilisation throughout the growing season. For example Dynacrop’s[1] Earth Observation products can help producers monitor soil organic carbon variation and visualise the effects of cover cropping on soil moisture. Access to such data can enable more precise application of inputs, improve yield predictions, optimise land usage and manage irrigation. Satellites can also be used to predict extreme weather events, allowing farmers to time to react and protect their crops. Being able to react proactively will help increase the food system’s climate resilience.

Soil condition monitoring – multi-sensor probes to assess soil quality and fertility are being developed. For example FA-Bio[2] have developed their SporSenZ technology, the composition of which mimics roots compounds, attracting active and dominant microbes in the soil for capture and analysis. The results provide an indication of soil health, and early warning of the presence of threatening pathogens. Soilmentor[3] by Vidacycle also helps assess soil quality and biodiversity. They sell tests to assess various parameters including earthworm count, rooting depth, infiltration rate and soil pH, the results from which can then be uploaded to the prototype ‘Regen Platform’ app to help track 10 so-called ‘Regen Indicators’ on a farm over time.

Sustainable mulch products – as an alternative to polyethylene films often used to suppress weeds and conserve moisture, a number of companies are developing novel mulch technologies by applying circular principles and sustainable sourcing. For example the LUKE institute[4] have developed a liquid mulch product based on wood or plant originating materials which ensures good control of weeds and growth of yield plants without any plastic or chemical residues remaining in the soil. In contrast, Walki[5] have developed Agripap, an organic mulch that is made from paper. It is designed to conserve moisture, improve the fertility and health of the soil and control weed growth, but is entirely biodegradable.

 

Major players ‘on board’

We’re not the only ones recognising the potential benefits of regenerative agriculture. An increasing number of key players from the food and beverage sector are investing in regenerative agriculture, and implementing innovative farming technologies to reduce input usage and improve the sustainability of their supply chain. Some examples include:

 

PepsiCo – Through a collaboration with the University of Cambridge, PepsiCo developed iCrop, a precision agriculture tool to precisely measure soil moisture. Their farmers use this in conjunction with the Cool Farm Tool (created by the University of Aberdeen) which quantifies on-farm greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon sequestration, and provides tips on how farmers might lessen their environmental impacts[6]. Earlier this year, PepsiCo also announced a partnership with N-Drip, an Israeli-based company that developed a high-efficiency irrigation system powered by gravity. The system harnesses the water-saving benefits of high-pressure drip irrigation, but with low energy, operating and maintenance demands. Research demonstrates that farmers using N-Drip routinely achieve significant water savings, larger crop yields, and reduced fertilizer usage. In addition, by converting from flood irrigation to N-Drip, CO2 emissions can be reduced by up to 83% and methane emissions by up to 78%[7].

Diageo – In February 2022, Guinness announced they were piloting an ambitious regenerative agriculture program across a minimum of 40 barley farms with plans to extend to additional farms as the pilot develops. To support this effort, Diageo have assembled a network of highly respected technical partners and local Irish agronomists. The company will work in collaboration with Irish farmers and suppliers including, Boortmalt, Glanbia and Comex McKinnon, to understand the most effective regenerative practices, adapted to the local context and the specific needs of Irish barley production. Results of the pilot will be shared widely to encourage adoption, with key outcomes expected to include improvements in soil health, enhanced biodiversity, decreased fertiliser use and improved farmer livelihoods[8].

 

Yeo Valley – as an organic brand for over 25 years, Yeo Valley have always placed an emphasis on ‘working in harmony with nature’. They now have ambitions to go further and support and empower their farmers to adopt regenerative organic farming. They have started by launching the ‘REGENERATION project’ which aims to measure the soil carbon stocks on all their supplier farms. In collaboration with the Farm Carbon toolkit (FCT) they are initially working with 25 farms to measure soil carbon stocks and deliver a mentoring programme on soil health and increasing soil carbon sequestration. This programme will take over five years – the minimum time frame to measure carbon sequestration in soil.[9]

There are numerous other examples of major manufacturers and retailers prioritising and adopting regenerative farming approaches across the globe. Improving the resilience and reliability of supply chains is clearly an appealing outcome and may be the primary driver for change within some organisations, but making changes in order to deliver food that is both nutritious and sustainable should be a priority of all major players across the food sector, and should be incorporated into all CSR agendas moving forward. Change takes time and comes at a cost, but partnerships and strategic alliances with organisations facing similar challenges, and with technology owners innovating to address key challenges in food supply, can offer a distinct advantage.

Indeed, change will only happen at scale if all players move together, no individual player has sufficient influence to independently move the needle on global food security. It has to be a concerted effort from producers, converters and retailers, as well as governments who can devise policy to drive change in the right direction. That’s not to say that individual companies shouldn’t start implementing changes where possible now to move towards a more sustainable operation. At a recent conference one speaker posed the question “what changes can I make today to influence tomorrow?”. At SAL we help our clients answer that very question, to understand how they can make a difference, and help them identify solutions to deliver change. We have been working on sustainability related projects for 15 years, projects that include helping our clients identify technologies to support the implementation of regenerative agriculture practices, identify and source bio-derived alternatives to existing material inputs, and explore novel ways to improve the environmental impact of delivering green energy*. Often, we deliver a suite of options effective across a client’s global farming operation with varying locations and crops. Our new home at Rothamsted[10] places us firmly in the heart of a community dedicated to delivering innovation to the food and farming industry to support regenerative farming practices. We feel passionate about putting our expertise, knowledge and network connections to good use in helping our clients achieve their sustainability ambitions. Our work supports change within the food system, change that is so desperately needed. Why not see if we can help you too.

 

*You can read more about these projects, and others on our website[11]. Alternatively, feel free to get in touch if you have a sustainability-related challenge you’d like to discuss with us.

 

[1] https://dynacrop.space/en/

[2] https://fa-bio.net/fa-biolab/

[3] https://tech.vidacycle.com/

[4] https://www.luke.fi/en/services/liquid-biodegradeable-mulching-technology-for-weed-management

[5] https://www.walki.com/casestories/naturalmulchingpaperachievesexcellentresultsinfieldtests.html

[6] https://www.pepsico.co.uk/sustainability/sustainable-food-system/agriculture

[7] https://f1000research.com/articles/8-2023

[8] https://www.diageo.com/en/news-and-media/stories/2022/guinness-embarks-on-regenerative-agriculture-pilot-as-good-things-are-taking-root

[9] https://regenerative.yeovalley.co.uk/measure/

[10] https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/

[11] https://strategicallies.co.uk/case-studies/