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Regenerative agriculture: what it is and why it matters

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It takes around 4 million hectares of land to grow the raw materials used in Unilever products. To ensure they are grown sustainably, we need to support the farmers who supply us as they make the shift to regenerative agriculture. But what does this mean and how will it work?

What is regenerative agriculture?

It’s an approach to farming that focuses on regenerating nature, building long-term resilience into our food supply chain and helping farmers adapt to the worsening impacts of climate change while helping to mitigate the problem.

This holistic land management system can improve soil health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by storing them above and below ground. It can also protect and enhance biodiversity in and around farms, improve water management and support livelihoods.

How does regenerative farming help restore nature?

Unilever has identified five areas that stand to benefit from regenerative agriculture: soil, water, biodiversity, climate and livelihoods.

1. Soil

Because it takes between 100 and 400 years to form, good soil management is critical to increase productivity, enhance resilience and help lower emissions. Keeping living roots in the ground, using cover crops to prevent erosion, and rotating shallow and deep rooting crops can increase soil health.

2. Water

Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of drought and flooding incidents. Improving floodwater defences and drainage on farms, minimising water pollution from farm run-off, and using water more efficiently will all help protect global water supplies.

3. Biodiversity

Farmers can help slow the current mass decline in biodiversity by introducing land on the land margins that support pollinators like bees and butterflies, and predatory insects, or by planting trees that provide shade cover for crops, while sequestering carbon and maintaining soil stability.

4. Climate

Agriculture, forestry and other land use are responsible for around a fifth of all greenhouse gas emissions. Nitrogen fertiliser contributes greatly to this. Reducing its use, using alternative fuels in farm machinery and ensuring carbon sequestration through trees are all ways of reducing the climate impact of farming.

5. Livelihoods

Education in regenerative agricultural practices and better access to finance and technology have the potential to boost livelihoods while improving land management as well as helping to build farmers’ resilience to climate-related events such as drought and flooding.

Red and green tractor driving through in a field of corn

What does regenerative agriculture look like in practice?

In practice, regenerative agriculture varies widely, depending on the regional, climate and crop-specific needs of each farm. To help navigate the transition, we created our regenerative agriculture principles (PDF 8.34 MB). They are a set of guidelines which can apply to diverse geographies and farming systems, from smallholders to large plantations. They reflect our belief that regenerative agriculture can help farmers increase productivity and sustainable production, while nature thrives and food security needs are met.

How will regenerative agriculture benefit our business?

As one of the largest foods businesses in the world, Unilever depends on crops to grow the ingredients used in our products. Regenerative agriculture is an important investment area for our Nutrition business as Unilever works towards its net zero target. It will help to create much-needed resilience in the agricultural value chain, help to address global warming and support farmer livelihoods in the long run. Climate change impacts like droughts can reduce crop yields, making it harder to source ingredients and increasing costs, so it’s vital we do what we can to future-proof our business.

What are the challenges of shifting to regenerative agriculture?

The transition phase while farmers incorporate regenerative practices can last an average of 3–5 years. This period can cause yield variability as the soil ecosystem adjusts to new practices, alongside capital outlays for specialised equipment.

Are the ingredients in our brands grown regeneratively?

Our products are increasingly incorporating ingredients grown following regenerative agriculture practices. Although to date none of our products are made from ingredients that are 100% grown through regenerative farming practices, we are keen to help accelerate shifting the sector in this direction. Our Climate & Nature Fund is a €1 billion impact-led investment platform, enabling our brands to accelerate positive action on climate and nature. Brands that are already involved and investing in regenerative agriculture include Knorr, Hellmann’s and Ben & Jerry’s.

We know we can’t do this alone. Regenerative agriculture demands a concerted effort from businesses, supporting collective transformation on farms and within supply chains. We’re working hard, along with farmers, suppliers and other partners, to make this happen. Together we can build a more resilient food supply and ensure a sustainable future for farming.

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