When McCain released its latest sustainability report, the company also committed to embracing regenerative agriculture. The world’s largest producer of frozen potato products - from waffle-cut fries to treats that look like a smiley-faced emoji - is pledging to cultivate 100 percent of its potatoes, growing across 370,000 acres worldwide, from the use of regenerative practices by 2030. Regenerative agriculture, which more companies are adopting within their supply chains, can help restore soil health while using natural processes to control pests and disease and promote crop resiliency. It can also boost drought tolerance and prevent crop failures from extreme weather events.
"The pandemic has put a spotlight squarely on the precarious nature of our global food system," says Max Koeune, McCain’s CEO in a public statement, highlighting the importance of examining the food system for vulnerabilities. Potatoes are cultivated in 130 countries and are among the most critical crops for global food security, following wheat and rice.
Profitable businesses need reliable supply chains to thrive. As the global population climbs, the demand for food increases. This pressure makes resilience even more critical, especially for marginalized people. Thankfully, potatoes have a relatively low-carbon footprint, and they are nutritious, making it an appealing crop.
McCain states on its website that it has four commitments in its approach to sustainable farming: mitigating climate change, enabling sustainable water usage, promoting good agricultural practices, and supporting innovation and technology.
"But the largest challenges we face are related to climate change,” continued Koeune. “It’s estimated that a quarter of man-made carbon emissions come from the production of food, and if we have to grow more food to feed more people, that will only intensify. If we don’t transform the way we grow food, the whole system is at risk of suffering irreparable damage." Ultimately, climate change can cripple the global food system through disasters such as flooding, wildfires, drought, landslides and storms.
One valuable tool to farmers is cover crops, which help sequester carbon and enhance soil’s ability to retain moisture. They can also enrich soil quality, reducing the need for fertilizers and preventing runoff and erosion. McCain has been experimenting with the use of multi-species cover crops in Canada with a one-year and a two-year blend that contains a dozen or more species.
Each type of seed provides a different service to the land and is specifically designed to help promote a healthy potato crop. Alfalfa has deep roots that break up lower levels of the soil while fixing nitrogen. Buckwheat has fine roots and cycles phosphorus in the ground. Nitrogen is essential for leaf growth, while phosphorus promotes root growth, crucial to tuber crop harvests.
There is typically very little plant diversity on large industrial farms, yet cover crops can help change that reality by providing wildlife habitat. For example, flowering cover crops can help support pollinators by providing them fodder.
Another common practice in regenerative farming is low or no-till agriculture. This approach boosts organic matter in the soil, prevents soil erosion, and increases biological activity in the ground. According to the USDA, it can “lead to economic gains for farmers over time.” Likewise, introducing hedgerows with native plants and promoting crop diversity are common regenerative agriculture practices. Still, the latter might not be logical for a company with such heavy demand for potatoes.
Although McCain has made some strides in the right direction, implementing regenerative agricultural practices within is quite a feat for any large corporation. McCain has 3,500 producers and 49 production facilities that span the globe. What was successful in Canada might not be effective in India or South Africa.
Unfortunately, there is also no common standard for regenerative agriculture. Although such an approach often involves low or no-till practices, cover crops, and wildlife habitat, there are no specific criteria. To that end, McCain’s announcement could raise questions as it works on this 2030 goal.
“There are no rules about who can put regenerative agriculture on their packaging,” Brent Preston, an Ontario farmer who is also a member of Farmers for Climate Solutions, said in an interview with the Globe and Mail earlier this week. “When companies like McCain are talking about converting to regenerative agriculture, that’s a great thing, but they have to be transparent about what exactly it means.” McCain’s announcement is still clearly a step in the right direction despite the ambiguity, but Preston said more information about the program is still needed.
In addition to a commitment to regenerative agriculture, McCain has also made numerous measurable sustainability commitments. Other examples include a pledge of sourcing 100 percent renewable electricity by 2030, using 100 percent of every potato harvested, and sending no waste to landfills by 2025.
Image credit: Lars Blankers/Unsplash
Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.