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Leon Kaye headshot

Unilever Bets (Part of) the Farm on Regenerative Agriculture

As it commits to regenerative agriculture, Unilever also provides companies in just about any sector a framework for securing a more efficient supply chain.
By Leon Kaye
Regenerative Agriculture

Photo: A coffee estate in the Caldas region of Colombia. More corporate- and family-owned coffee farms are adopting regenerative agriculture practices, such as planting flowers to attract bees and other pollinators or fruit trees to cultivate other crops other than coffee beans.

Over the past decade much of the chatter about agriculture has been about going organic. But in case you haven’t chatted with a favorite vendor at the local farmers’ market, the process to become certified organic is not always the most seamless, especially if certification requires land to go fallow for a particular amount of time. But the evidence suggests regenerative agriculture — which isn’t necessarily 100 percent “organic” but can include tactics such as agroforestry as well as a focus on topsoil health — is now key to the sector becoming more of a player in the global fight against climate change. On a grander scale, more companies like Unilever realize such a focus can help burnish their sustainability chops, too.

The Dutch-Anglo CPG giant says investing in sustainable agriculture has been a part of its overall strategy over the past decade. Recently, the company announced it would also start implementing what it calls a set of regenerative agriculture principles. Those five principles can be summed up in five words: soil, water, climate, biodiversity and livelihoods (i.e., income).

Once one gets past the pretty graphics and PR-speak (“positive outcomes” is a term that should be banned), Unilever’s principles offer other companies, in just about any sector, a template on how they can engage and improve their supply chains so they are less wasteful. Quite frankly, it could also be refashioned into a textbook for classes on supply chain management and sustainable business.

Take water, for example. Here is where companies can launch programs with their suppliers, and their suppliers’ suppliers, to right-size their supply chains. With minimal investments, the results could actually provide big savings and more raw materials with a smaller footprint. Unilever, which has said it is taking a hard look at its water footprint, starts with the “what”: Protect waterways from runoff and erosion, arrive at the most efficient irrigation technology possible and ensure those irrigation projects do not impose on local watersheds.

In case one still wonders what the point of all this is, as is the case for the other four principles, Unilever then gives the “why,” as in metrics: reducing nitrates in any water runoff, stalling sedimentation in any bodies of water near such farms, and finally, measuring the water footprint of those irrigated crops.

A similar approach is taken with preserving and securing biodiversity. In a nod to the argument that we don’t necessarily need more farmland, but instead to ensure that farmland already out there has less of an environmental impact and is more productive, the framework goes as follows: no more encroaching on natural habitats; boost the number of species of flora and fauna; eschew chemicals for insects that nab any pests; and avoid any harmful farming practices like strip farming that critics say lead to monocultures. Unilever does not say any of this is easy, but then again in this day and age, that’s where business-nonprofit partnerships come in.

Unilever is not the first company to incorporate regenerative agriculture but so far has done the best at explaining it. Other global companies that have shown such interest and increased their investments include Danone North America, which earlier this year announced that the acreage included within its regenerative agriculture program had tripled in size.

In addition, PepsiCo last week said it seeks to expand regenerative agriculture practices across 7 million acres by the end of the decade. And General Mills, which owns a bevy of popular brands such as Cascadian Farm, Epic and Annie’s, has included regenerative agriculture within its sustainability strategy. The popular Italian brand Illycaffè has called for the wider coffee industry to adopt regenerative agriculture practices as well.

Image credit: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye