Regenerative agriculture is beginning to gain a stronger foothold in the mainstream market, and the Danone North America family of dairy brands is setting out to accelerate and scale up the trend. The firm’s five-year demonstration program launched just three years ago, and it has already tripled in size, covering over 80,000 acres in the U.S. and Canada.
Danone North America established itself as the largest public benefit corporation on Earth in 2018, and its France-based parent company Danone is staking out a leadership position in sustainable food production. That provides the company with the potential to play a highly influential role in the transition to regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture is becoming known for its use in preserving soil health as well as building back depleted soil. It shares some characteristics with organic farming, though the two do not necessarily overlap completely. Of the 80,000-plus acres in Danone’s current program, the company says close to 30,000 acres of them are farmed organically as of December.
As Danone explains, there are bottom line and environmental benefits. By improving soil health, regenerative and organic agricultural practices can improve yields, reduce the use of chemicals, restore biodiversity and improve the ability of soil to retain moisture.
The climate crisis adds another level of environmental benefit, and it also opens another pathway for profit. Regenerative agriculture is also gaining force as a carbon sequestration strategy as adding organic matter to soil is a main element in the practice.
Over the first three years of the Danone North America program, the contrast with conventional farming has been striking. For example, conventional farming leaves land uncovered after harvest, which raises the potential for soil depletion. Planting off-season cover crops helps to resolve that problem; two-thirds of Danone’s partner farmers have adopted such practices.
Tilling is another cause of depletion and outright loss, as it exposes more soil to wind. Danone’s partners use reduced or no-till methods on about 80 percent of their lands; nationwide, the average is 37 percent, according to the most recent USDA survey — that is, of farmers who actually report such data in the first place.
Among other strategies that contrast with conventional farming, Danone’s partners have also doubled the species diversity of both cover and cash crops, and they have also invested in additional methods for retaining water in fields.
The climate action benefits are also striking. Danone estimated that the program has avoided more than 80,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent and sequestered more than 20,000 tons of carbon.
In addition to food production, regenerative agriculture also has implications for sustainable biofuel production. Some elements of the practice could also become part of broader decarbonization efforts by entities that control large parcels of land, up to and including the U.S. Department of Defense.
Because regenerative agriculture is an emerging field of study, there is much room for experimentation. Still, there is enough knowledge in hand to provide food producers with a reliable roadmap for introducing the practice into their supply chains.
The Danone North America program demonstrates six key elements of a successful regenerative farming program. One is to focus on core benefits, including bottom line benefits. Along with soil health, biodiversity, water, and carbon sequestration, Danone North America cites economy and productivity as important facets of its program.
Another element is to enlist an experienced consultant that can identify science-based benchmarks and set specific goals. Danone deploys the EcoPractices platform developed by its regenerative farming partner, Sustainable Environmental Consultants.
A third element is to track and measure progress on a scientific basis. “The program monitors improved yields and efficiency, and supports the farmer economic value proposition, achieving lower input costs associated with reduced nutrient application, supporting farm economic resiliency as a result of regenerative agriculture practices,” Nicholas Camu, vice president of agriculture at Danone North America, told TriplePundit.
A fourth tool in the Danone toolkit is to develop an individual plan for each farm. In a recent email interview with TriplePundit, Camu explained that there is no one-size-fits-all method. In the area of biodiversity, for example, Danone North America and SEC consult directly with each farm. The consultations often result in pilot programs for new cash and cover crops. In effect, the farmer becomes a research partner.
“Agricultural systems can be restored, enhanced or improved in a variety of ways to support improved biodiversity,” Camu said. “This can include adding wildlife boxes and vegetation buffers (such as grasses and trees) which create habitat for pollinators, ground-nesting birds and waterfowl; and even creating wetland areas which can be adjacent to fields to filter nutrients.”
Danone also recognizes that there are many moving parts to both climate action and regenerative farming. Scaling up to a global level is a massive undertaking that requires strategic partners to achieve success.
“We recognize that climate change is a systemic challenge—not in the future, but right here, right now. Globally, we are meeting this challenge head-on by aligning to science-based targets and committing to zero net carbon emissions by 2050. Our zero net carbon commitment means that we are responsible for the carbon emissions from the farms where we source our ingredients to the facilities that manage packaging once our products are consumed,” Camu added.
In support of this effort, Danone North America became a Founding Circle member of the Ecosystem Marketplace Consortium. The non-profit organization has developed a science and market-based strategy for encouraging farmers and ranchers to adopt restorative practices.
Danone has also joined with the influential Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance (REBA) and the Sustainable Food Policy Alliance to advocate for “strong and specific” national policies that “accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon power sector and expand access to clean energy for customers.”
The REBA connection could prove especially interesting. It provides Danone North America with a window into the emerging field of agrivoltaics, in which solar panels are used to provide a shading effect that reduces evaporation and helps to improve soil health.
Finally, the Danone program recognizes that innovation is the driving force behind regenerative agriculture. The company has no plan to rest on its laurels for the final two years of the five-year program. In addition to working with its partner farms on additional improvements and innovations, Danone has articulated a collaborative plan for introducing best practices and models for other companies to adopt, including financial models that enable farmers to invest in new crops, tools, and technologies.
As part of its outreach efforts, Danone has produced a video describing the results of the first three years of the program.
When the fifth year of the program is complete, Danone expects to have 100,000 acres of regenerative agriculture among its partner farms, and many thousands more throughout the global supply chain.
Image credit: Pixabay
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.