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How powerful partnerships are helping grow resilient agricultural supply chains

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It’s set to be a year of acceleration for our projects that implement regenerative agriculture practices. Lucas Urbano, our Head of Regenerative Agriculture, Business Operations, explains why partnerships with both farmers and tech experts will be key to scaling up the programme.

Lucas Urbano, dressed in jeans and a checked shirt, stands in front of a field with two green and yellow tractors in the background.

Time is up for regenerative agriculture pilots. For Lucas Urbano, Head of Regenerative Agriculture in Business Operations, it’s time to scale up.

Regenerative agriculture is one of the 10 action areas identified as key to helping Unilever achieve near-term greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets, as part of its updated Climate Transition Action Plan.

This year alone, the business aims to more than double its projects that implement regenerative agriculture practices, scaling them from 17 to 38.

But what will fuel this acceleration?

For Lucas, it’s all about teamwork. We speak to him about why partnerships both in the field with farmers and online with data experts are critical to achieving acceleration, scale and impact.

A tomato field farmed using regenerative agriculture practices

Why is the transition to regenerative agriculture so important for Unilever?

Agriculture is the backbone of our operations. We use commodities like soy and tomatoes for brands like Knorr and Hellmann’s, and coconut and shea for personal care brands like Dove.

However, agricultural supply chains currently face numerous challenges, including climate-related disruptions and volatile commodity markets.

By adopting regenerative agriculture practices that work in harmony with nature, we can help farmers build more resilient systems and healthier businesses, by ensuring soil health for sustained productivity and reducing dependency on costly inputs like fertilisers.

Importantly, this approach aligns with our own business objectives and sustainability strategy – creating a more stable and efficient supply chain.

In my view, we’re entering an era where we must ensure each sustainability investment yields anticipated returns for our business and farmers.

Lucas Urbano, Head of Regenerative Agriculture, Business Operations

What role will partnerships play in this transition to regenerative agriculture?

At Unilever, we understand that transitioning to regenerative agriculture needs to be a collaborative journey.

Engaging all stakeholders across the supply chain is paramount. It begins with our farmers collaborating closely with our suppliers and buyers. It then extends to our brands, committing both resources and investments.

I see Unilever as a catalyst for change. For example, we can collaborate with both agricultural experts and implementation partners to ensure the adoption of appropriate practices and metrics at farm level.

Furthermore, our partnerships with NGOs, governments and agencies enable us to formulate proposals that are advantageous and enticing for farmers, addressing returns and risk mitigation.

Your latest partnership is with data experts Regrow. What are you hoping to achieve?

I'm thrilled to be working with Regrow, an organisation which joins our family of technology partnerships including NASA through the Harvest programme, and Nature Metrics and Biome Makers for impact monitoring.

With Regrow, our primary objective is to collect farm and supply chain data – such as land size, agricultural practices and organic soil carbon. This data will help us to model best practices, understand GHG emissions from farms and manage the performance of our projects. Using data and technology will empower farmers to optimise harvests by enhancing their understanding of their own land.

Why is data so important?

In my view, we’re entering an era where we must ensure each sustainability investment yields anticipated returns for our business and farmers. Data and technological systems are pivotal for creating high performance and sustainable food production methods and running effective programmes with positive impacts.

Let me share an example. When I visit soybean farmers in Iowa in the US or tomato fields in Badajoz in Spain, the challenges stemming from climate change or unsustainable agricultural practices are glaringly evident. However, farmers often lack the necessary knowledge or data to inform decision-making that could improve the situation.

The same holds true for us. When we collaborate with our suppliers to bolster resilience in the supply chain and meet sustainability goals, we rely on comprehensive and accurate data. Thanks to partnerships like the one with Regrow, accessing this type of data helps us to create a robust system that can track the sustainability key performance indicators (KPIs) in our supply chain.

A field of tomatoes, grown with regenerative agriculture practices to improve water management and soil health

Many of Unilever’s projects that are implementing regenerative agriculture practices are still in their very early stages. Nevertheless, are there any results you can share?

The outcomes of our 2022 agriculture programmes show promising results from a business standpoint. Consider the tomato fields in Badajoz, Spain, where regenerative agriculture techniques, along with advanced sensors and soil probes, have optimised water usage, leading to a more resilient production system. Similarly, our rice production efforts in the US significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions and water usage.

Our systems provide valuable data to continuously adapt and enhance our production chain. With the measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) framework and digital partnerships, we’re poised for professional and bold programme management.

I’m thrilled to see momentum building behind the transition to regenerative agriculture. Collaborating with partners helps us to elevate our expertise and boldness, which is crucial for both society and business.

It’s intriguing to note some of our top brands are beginning to experiment with discussing regenerative agriculture. For instance, our Regenerate your vibes campaign in Italy celebrates sustainable practices, setting the stage for future food production. This evolution, alongside working with our partners, excites me for what lies ahead.

Read more about our commitment to regenerative agriculture.

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