Is greenwashing the greatest threat to regenerative agriculture?

Is greenwashing the greatest threat to regenerative agriculture?

As the regenerative agriculture movement gathers pace it was only a matter of time before the food industry took note and, of course, wants a piece of the consumer action.

The phrase regenerative agriculture was first used at least three decades ago by the organic farming nonprofit Rodale Institute, but it got little attention until the last five or six years.

A google search for 'regenerative agriculture' shows in excess of 29m results which just goes to show how the term is trending but is the concept as well understood?

First of all we need to define it and then look at any potential problem that arise from this.

What is regenerative agriculture?

We've written about this quite a few times in the past but it's worth reiterating how 'regen ag' is defined. The wikipedia description is about as simple as it gets and it states:

Regenerative agriculture is a conservation and rehabilitation approach to food and farming systems. It focuses on topsoil regeneration, increasing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, enhancing ecosystem services, supporting biosequestration,increasing resilience to climate change, and strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil.

This seems simple enough but what makes the concept very different for a consumer to understand is that it is an outcomes based term not a set of practices or prescriptive methodology, ie. what you can and can't use on the land, and based on this definition, in theory, any methods and inputs that contribute to the results listed above would still allow the land under investigation to be described as regenerative.

So what's the problem?

Without considering the life cycle assessment of inputs it's very possible the regeneration happening in one place is facilitated by the destruction of another.

How could this be? If our only measurement of regeneration is the result we see on the land or farm we're measuring, that outcome could be achieved by the use of inputs such as fertilisers, composts and the importation of any manner of synthetic or organic materials which have come from somewhere else.

Let's consider land that has been heavily farmed for conventional crops for many years that is depleted in nutrients, the soil structure is poor with a very low percentage of organic matter and very low biodiversity, what measures could be taken to 'regenerate' this land and claim it is now regenerative?

The Noble Research Institute states: 

........the fertilizer must provide a production benefit that exceeds any temporary negative impact on soil biology. If a fertilizer application will cause a long-term negative impact on the soil’s biology, it should NOT have a role in regenerative agriculture

So here we have a situation where if soil is improved with the addition of externalities that are damaging to produce, this could be considered regenerative, but only in the field, not as a system. 

Artificial fertilizer is of course widely used in agriculture but we would argue that is is not a sustainable product, let alone a regenerative one to produce because some of the elements have to be mined as well as highly industrially processed.

Artificial fertiliser is often called simply NPK and these letters are the elements that are in fertilisers that are crucial for plant growth being

N - Nitrogen:

For nitrogen-based fertilizers, the process starts by mixing nitrogen from the air with hydrogen from natural gas at high temperature and pressure to create ammonia. Approximately 60% of the natural gas is used as raw material, with the remainder employed to power the synthesis process.

P - Phosphorus

Phosphorus-based fertilizers are produced from mined ores. Phosphate rock is primarily treated with sulphuric acid to produce phosphoric acid, which is either concentrated or mixed with ammonia.

K - Potassium

Potassium-based fertilizers are produced from mined ores. Several chemical processes can be used to convert the potash rock into plant food, including potassium chloride, sulphate and nitrate.

As we can see, the production of these compounds is anything but regenerative! They involve extractive mining, fossil fuels and large scale chemical processes before requiring distribution, transportation and application all which use more fossil fuels, not even sustainable let alone regenerative.

The farmers we work with are not all entirely input free but their principle of regenerative farming is working on a model of continuous improvement, that means that movement is being made towards being not just input free but improving the metrics of soil biology and biodiversity, we represent a few farmers who are operating on simply sunlight and rainwater which has to be the end goal for all.

We accept that regenerative agriculture is a journey not a destination and in fact there is no destination, there will always be some aspect of production that can be improved but the big question we have to ask is can a system be considered regenerative if it used inputs that are not even sustainable? We predict that many claims will be made that are exactly that, measured changes in the field without sufficient life cycle assessment.

The greenwash is coming.

What worries us is that there is currently no legal definition of regenerative agriculture, there are a few certifications such as A Greener World, regenagri, Savory's Ecological outcome Verification and the Leaf Mark but should a business wish to make a claim that they are producing regeneratively there's not a standard legal definition.

As we've stated, the term is trending and a few brands including us are making claims that the produce IS regenerative and our customers know that they are paying more for what we sell than they would for conventionally farmed produce in a typical supermarket, so how might this affect the bigger brands?

It will come as no surprise to learn that they're already on the case!

From - The Fast Company

Food companies, from McDonald’s to PepsiCo and General Mills, are pouring money into the space. Nestlé is investing more than $1 billion over five years to increase the use of regenerative agriculture in its supply chain. Consumer goods giant Unilever partnered with insurer Axa earlier this year to create a billion-euro private equity fund to invest in regenerative projects.

Additionally, the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act includes around $20 billion to support regenerative farming. Pitchbook estimates that startups in the space raised more than $700 million globally last year. Some companies are starting to help farmers sell voluntary carbon credits—

An article in 2020 on First Post noted that:

Coca Cola, Pepsico and Nestle are named the most polluting companies in the world, for the third time in a row. In fact, the amount of plastic waste generated by Coca Cola, 13,834 pieces across 51 countries, was more than the waste collected by Pepsico and Nestle combined

The top 10 most polluting companies as per BFFP:
1 Coca Cola
2 Pepsico
3 Nestle
4 Unilever
5 Modelez
6 Mars
7 P&G
8 Philip Morris International
9 Colgate-Palmolive
10 Perfetti van Melle

Seven of the 10 worst polluters — The Coca-Cola Company; PepsiCo; Nestlé; Unilever; Mondelez International; Mars, Inc.; and Colgate-Palmolive — signed the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy Global Commitment in October 2018, which requires them to "eliminate all unnecessary plastic" while reusing or recycling plastic items in a circular system and create more sustainable substitutes.

However, the foundation reported that its signatories have only reduced its use of virgin plastic by 0.1 percent from 2018 to 2019. Meanwhile, Coca-Cola increased the amount of plastic it uses.

Break Free From Plastic states that these multinational corporations are pumping out so much of single-use plastics that plastic production could double by 2030 and triple by 2050. Such an increase would have a devastating impact on human health, ecological systems, and climate change.

Here we see a few of the same brands that are globally the worst polluters in the food and beverage industry getting very interested in Regenerative Agriculture, whilst this is of course a good thing and any positive change should be encouraged we need to be very skeptical of claims that could be made from these giants as the public's desire for regenerative produce grows.


So where's this all going?

We can see some brands making claims - we sincerely hope that they have all their ducks in a row and consider the wider implications of any claims of being regenerative across the entire life cycle of their produce. False claims could simply undermine consumer confidence in the whole movement.