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Resilient Food Systems: The Role the Business Community Plays in Fostering Regenerative Agriculture

RBC | Feb 06, 2024 |

Farming practices, particularly intensive and damaging agricultural methods, have contributed to soil degradation and negative impacts on climate. Here’s what we, as business leaders, can do

The Need for Resilient Food Systems

The global food sector contributes nearly 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions each year. With a growing population expected to reach 10 Billion by 2050, we will have to produce significantly more food, and, without a change in the agricultural practices, this will only exacerbate soil degradation and climate damage.

When it comes to the planet, our current food system is riddled with challenges. Farming practices, particularly intensive agricultural methods, have contributed to soil degradation and negative impacts on climate. It takes 1,000 years to create three centimeters of topsoil and if “current rates of degradation continue all of the world’s top soil could be gone within 60 years.”

According to the Food and Land Use Coalition, the cumulative costs associated with today’s food systems amount to nearly $12 trillion per year.

At COP28, held in December of 2023 in the UAE, 154 countries became signatories to the Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action in which they “affirm[ed] that agriculture and food systems must urgently adapt and transform in order to respond to the imperatives of climate change.”

We at the Responsible Business Center believe that the business community has a leading role to play in the success of more resilient food systems. Large food corporations play a significant role in the challenges facing our climate and food systems. However, it’s crucial to recognize that they also hold the key to positive change. By urging these corporations to adopt more sustainable practices, theycan not only mitigate the impacts of climate change but also enhance the resilience of their supply chains. Addressing this complex issue necessitates a systemic approach and collective across the entire industry.

The Responsible Business Center has established three impact pillars in which our work will focus: Impacts for People & Planet, Resilient Food Systems, and Responsible Markets & Disclosures. Given the material risks to business in addition to the opportunities for collective action and impact, the Center will strategically focus within these three areas to foster a more just and sustainable business ecosystem that serves all people and sustains our planet.

Progress, but with Costs

Population growth and industrial innovation, particularly within economic systems prioritizing profitability, spurred margin and market share for organizations that met growing demand with ‘progress’ that mostly preceded knowledge of any consequential damage caused. Further, such ‘damage’ was typically an ‘externality’ – a cost that was borne by all people and planet and passed along cost-free by industries. Some of the ways in which the global agricultural juggernaut and their farming practices have damaged soil health and negatively impacted climate include:

Soil Erosion: Intensive plowing and monoculture practices have led to increased soil erosion. When the soil is exposed and unprotected, wind and water can easily wash or blow away the topsoil, which is rich in organic matter and essential nutrients. Soil erosion reduces soil fertility and hampers its ability to retain water, leading to decreased agricultural productivity and increased vulnerability to drought.

Soil Compaction: Heavy machinery used in conventional farming practices can compact the soil, reducing its pore spaces and limiting the infiltration of water and air. Compacted soil has poor drainage and aeration, which negatively affects root growth and nutrient uptake by plants. It also increases the risk of runoff and soil erosion.

Loss of Organic Matter: Intensive farming practices, such as excessive tilling and the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, can deplete organic matter in the soil. Organic matter is crucial for soil fertility and structure, as it provides nutrients for plants, improves water-holding capacity, and fosters a healthy soil ecosystem. The loss of organic matter reduces soil productivity and resilience to environmental stresses.

Chemical Contamination: The use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in conventional farming can lead to chemical contamination of the soil. These chemicals can accumulate in the soil over time, affecting soil biodiversity and disrupting natural processes. Additionally, excess fertilizer application can result in nutrient imbalances and nutrient runoff, which can pollute water bodies and contribute to eutrophication[1].

Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Intensive farming practices, particularly the use of synthetic fertilizers and livestock production, contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Synthetic fertilizers release nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, during their production and use. Livestock, especially ruminant animals like cows, produce methane through enteric fermentation and manure management. Both nitrous oxide and methane are major contributors to climate change.

These damaging farming practices have disrupted the natural balance of ecosystems, degraded soil health, and contributed to climate change.

What Some Multinational Companies are Doing Now, to Support Regenerative Farming and Other Like Practices

Large food corporations are reliant upon the continuity and resilience of their supply chains. Without adequate soil health, optimal climate conditions , and biodiversity, the risk of crop failure significantly increases, posing a threat to the well-being of farming communities. This not only jeopardizes the livelihoods of those communities but also endangers the production of beloved consumer products such as coffee, chocolate, oatmeal, and pasta. Food companies recognize that this is a material risk to the business and are taking action.

General Mills has set a goal to advance regenerative agriculture practices on one million acres of farmland by 2030. They are working with farmers to implement soil health practices, such as cover cropping and crop rotation, to improve soil fertility and water management. Similarly, Danone has partnered with farmers and organizations to promote regenerative agriculture. They are supporting farmers in adopting practices that enhance soil health, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration. Danone has committed to regenerative agriculture on all of its dairy farms by 2025. Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company, has launched the Regenerative Organic Certification program. This certification goes beyond organic standards and requires farmers to adopt regenerative practices that improve soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. Nestlé is investing in regenerative agriculture practices through its Nescafé Plan. They are working with coffee farmers to implement sustainable farming methods that improve soil health, water management, and biodiversity. Unilever has committed to sourcing all its agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2023. They are working with farmers and suppliers to promote regenerative practices, such as agroforestry and regenerative grazing, to restore soil health and biodiversity. PepsiCo set a 2030 goal to scale regenerative farming practices across 7 million acres, equivalent to the organization’s entire agricultural footprint, and improve the livelihoods of more than 250,000 people in their agricultural supply chain.

These companies, among others, are actively influencing the adoption of regenerative agricultural practices by partnering with farmers, setting sustainability goals, and driving industry collaborations. Their efforts are essential in promoting sustainable and regenerative food production systems, and hopefully, are cheered by consumers and investors, leading to the necessity that others follow suit.

Part of the Problem or Part of the Solution? Regenerative Farming Practices that can reduce or reverse climate damage

We, all living today, are the first people that might knowingly cause a less habitable planet for future generations. Choosing to, or challenging our policy makers and industrial leaders to migrate to more regenerative agricultural processes, is a critical next step in assuring  the restoration of soil health, improving carbon sequestration, and mitigating the negative impacts of farming on climate.

Some current and developing regenerative farming practices include cover cropping and crop rotation which includes planting cover crops between cash crops to improve soil health, enhance carbon sequestration and protect the soil. Regenerative grazing, a way of managing grazing livestock that mimics natural grazing patterns, allowing for proper rest and recovery of pastures, improving soil health, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

These regenerative farming practices, along with others, can help restore soil health, increase carbon sequestration, promote biodiversity, and reduce the negative impacts of farming on climate change. It is critical to recognize that each practice is unique to the farmer, their land, and their specific situation. Large food corporations have rightfully begun to integrate the voice of the farmer into the conversation when making business decisions as not all practices are a “one size fits all.”

Responsible Business Center’s 2nd Annual “The Good Business that comes from Good Business” Conference

Be sure to join the Responsible Business Center for our 2nd Annual The Good Business that comes from Good Business Conference on April 11, 2024 at Fordham University Lincoln Center campus. The day-long conference will explore the material benefits of responsible business through verticals on People & Planet; Resilient Food Systems; and Responsible Markets & Disclosures. Contact us if you would like to sponsor and/or participate as a speaker. Learn more about attending this event here.

[1] The gradual increase in the concentration of phosphorus, nitrogen, and other plant nutrients in an aging aquatic ecosystem such as a lake. The productivity or fertility of such an ecosystem naturally increases as the amount of organic material that can be broken down into nutrients increases.

Written by: Leigh Anne Statuto, executive director and Peter Lupoff, director of strategy, Responsible Business Center, Fordham University Gabelli School of Business 

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