Regenerative Agriculture: The Next Trend In Food Retailing
Jack Uldrich is a leading global futurist, best-selling author, and keynote speaker. He is also the founder/CEO of The School of Unlearning.
In 2019, General Mills, the manufacturer of Cheerios, Yoplait and Annie’s Mac and Cheese (among other products), announced it would begin sourcing a portion of its corn, wheat, dairy and sugar from farmers who were engaged in regenerative agriculture practices and committed to advancing the practice of regenerative agriculture on one million acres of land by 2030. In early 2020, Whole Foods announced regenerative agriculture would be the No. 1 food trend and, in spite of the pandemic and the rapid growth of online shopping overshadowing the trend, business interest in the field still spiked by 138%.
More recently, PepsiCo announced it was adopting regenerative agriculture practices among 7 million acres of its farmland. Cargill declared it intends to do the same on 10 million acres by 2030, and Walmart has committed to advancing the practice on 50 million acres. Other companies pursuing regenerative agriculture include Danone, Unilever, Hormel, Target and Land O’ Lakes.
To those who think these numbers are modest, understand that only 5 million acres of farmland are currently dedicated to organic farming practices. As a professional futurist who has been advising farmers and agri-businesses for the past few years, I have seen that regenerative agriculture is a BIG trend and encourage grocers to begin paying closer attention to how it will affect their business.
Going Beyond Organic
At its most basic level, regenerative agriculture is a more nature-friendly way of farming. It can be thought of as the next step beyond organic and sustainability. Although there is not yet an officially agreed-upon definition, regenerative agriculture employs farming and grazing practices that restore degraded soil, improve biodiversity among pollinators (especially bees and butterflies) and increase carbon capture in the soil to create long-lasting environmental benefits.
If “organic” food is better for people’s health, think of regenerative agriculture as being better for both people’s health and the health of the planet. More specifically, regenerative agriculture seeks to move away from synthetic fertilizers, monoculture crops and industrial production methods to techniques that minimize chemical use and enhance the health of both water and soil. The end result is that regenerative agriculture produces healthier food while also serving to increase yields and profits for the farmer.
Growing Consumer Demand
According to Nielsen, 75% of millennials are altering their buying habits with the environment in mind. This sentiment, of course, does not always materialize into tangible actions on behalf of every consumer. However, it is clear from the actions of PepsiCo, General Mills, Walmart, Unilever and others that they believe consumers’ expectations of what is environmentally friendly are shifting and that they will soon be looking to purchase regeneratively-produced foods because of the many benefits they produce.
In the near future, due to technological advances in satellites, smart sensors and Blockchain (a complex technological platform that will significantly improve traceability), consumers will have the tools to track the performance of their food producers by monitoring everything from carbon dioxide emissions and carbon soil sequestration to water usage and biodiversity.
If you want a hint at this future, check out Chiplote’s “Real Foodprint,” which documents its performance in each of the aforementioned categories for its consumers. Not every consumer will care about these things, but it is clear that millennials and members of Generation Z are increasingly committed to purchasing the type of “earth-friendly” foods that regenerative agriculture is producing and will soon be seeking regenerative products in the aisles of your stores.
The next step in the transition to regenerative agriculture is certification. The goal is to create labeling that will allow the consumer to connect to the full suite of their values. In 2020, the Savory Institute granted its first “Ecological OutCome Verification (EOV) seal to Epic’s latest high protein bars by certifying that its featured beef was raised with regenerative agriculture practices.
More recently, the Regenerative Organic Alliance unveiled its own “Regenerative Organic” label and created a three-tier certification for producers that include bronze, silver and gold certification. The three-tier certification allows organizations to sidestep the issue of a definitive definition while also giving producers the time and flexibility needed to upgrade their practices and processes in order to meet an ever-higher level of certification. Over time, grocers can expect that third-party certification will improve and labeling will become more influential in their shopping and purchasing habits.
The prudent grocer should, therefore, begin educating themselves about regenerative agriculture and understand how it differs from today’s organic products. Next, grocers can begin working with those companies and vendors involved in regenerative agriculture to improve certification and labeling. Third, I encourage grocers to begin taking tangible steps to create the necessary space and signature in their stores to display products sourced from farms and agribusinesses employing regenerative agricultural practices. Finally, the progressive grocer will want to begin touting their support for regenerative agriculture. I believe this is a wise long-term investment because it will help ensure that their food suppliers are engaged in truly sustainable practices and provide their customers access to healthy, affordable food that is also beneficial to the long-term health of the planet.
Regenerative agriculture is poised to move into the mainstream faster than many people expect, in my opinion. It is a classic triple-win situation. Consumers can receive healthier foods, farmers can have a more secure and prosperous future and the planet will benefit because regenerative agriculture provides it a better chance to heal and restore itself. At the confluence of these forces will be the grocer who serves as a conduit among the three.
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