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Earth First

Can Big Companies Really Go Regenerative?

Some of the largest agrifood companies claim to be transitioning to regenerative agriculture. Should this bring us hope that meaningful change is about to scale up? Or has another important movement become a convenient buzzword for corporate greenwashing?

Regenerative agriculture doesn’t have one definition. There are no fixed rules about how to do it or exactly what we should try to achieve. On the one hand, this means that regenerative farmers have the freedom to respond best to their individual situation - each farm is a unique ecosystem, so farmers need to be able to make the best decision for their individual situation. But it also creates an environment ripe for hollow promises and greenwashing.

Even if there isn’t a universal definition of “regenerative”, most people agree that regenerative agriculture means growing food in a way that improves the health of the soil, with benefits for people and the living world.

Why is regenerative agriculture emerging?

For many farmers, the notion of trying to “farm sustainably” won’t cut it anymore - they feel we need to go beyond sustaining, to creating agricultural systems that actively regenerate the land we rely on. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 12 million hectares of global land are lost each year to degradation and, in the European Union, up to 70% of soils are degraded due to unsustainable management.1 This soil degradation affects the quality and quantity of food available and impacts the ecological function of the land.2 For example, degrading soil releases huge quantities of carbon, where it becomes a climate-warming gas in the atmosphere rather than a fertility-boosting substance in the soil.3 Many conventional farming methods that damage soil are also causing wider social and ecological harm - such as impacting the natural water cycle, which contributes to increased flooding events and an overreliance on synthetic fertilisers that can lead to excess nutrient run-off and ‘dead zones’ in our oceans. So, the regenerative farmers say, instead of sustaining the broken, it’s time to actively improve things. It’s time to regenerate.

Find out more about regenerative farming principles

Now that the concept of “regen ag” is becoming more popular, it might not be surprising that huge corporations are claiming to stand behind it, whether by investing in regenerative practices or promising to source regenerative produce. After all, market experts tell us that the “regenerative agriculture industry” was worth more than USD 8.5 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow in CAGR value by over 15% between 2023 and 2030. While critics argue that regenerative farming isn’t an industry at all, but rather a way to leave the profit-driven farming model for one that respects people and the natural world, this valuation makes it an appealing business prospect.15 But can big food companies really go regenerative? Or are they trying to greenwash their image to cash in on consumer awareness?

How a flexible definition can lead to greenwashing

For those genuinely farming with regenerative goals in mind, the flexibility around defining regenerative agriculture can be beneficial. Because when farming within the rhythms of nature, you need to be agile in your response. Maybe one year, a drought will affect how much grass is out in the fields. Should a farmer be forced to keep moving their cattle on a daily basis just to meet their pre-planned regenerative grazing plan? In a scenario where the animals won’t get enough to eat, the farmer might know that the soil would benefit from something that would harm animals or reduce productivity.

The lack of definition means farmers can focus on the larger goals, like improving soil health and creating a healthy farm ecosystem while taking the best care of their livestock and livelihoods. But, for those looking to exploit a loosely regulated market, the ambiguity can also make the regenerative agriculture movement an attractive opportunity. With no clear regulatory boundaries, the regenerative movement is highly vulnerable to greenwashing - largely because it’s fairly easy to claim you’re participating in something if it doesn’t have a definition.

Where do we draw the line?

To understand where we draw the line between regenerative agriculture and greenwashing, I spoke to Philippe Birker, a co-founder of Climate Farmers. This business aims to help farmers transition to regenerative agriculture by supporting access to the knowledge and finance they need.

I asked him whether we should be happy or concerned that big corporations are plastering the word ‘regenerative’ all over their websites.

“The attention is good,” he says. “Let’s not forget that regenerative farming is nothing new. Farmers have been implementing regenerative techniques for decades without always getting the recognition they deserve. Since 2017, all the big magazines have been raving about regenerative agriculture, and overall, it’s good that big corporations are using their marketing budgets to talk and push regenerative farming.”

The problem comes when we compare corporations' stated intentions and the concrete data about regenerative farming.

“Back in 2018, I was trying to track down the regenerative farmers in Western Europe. I could only find 60”. That number has surely grown, he concedes, but we don’t know how many regenerative farmers there really are. And it seems unlikely to Philippe that the supply of regenerative produce can keep pace with the announcements that corporations will be going 100% regenerative by 2030.

“I’m worried there isn’t enough evidence to back up the claims about food companies sourcing regenerative produce,” he says. “And we need to make sure that anyone claiming their supply chain is regenerative has some data to prove that.”

Image showing Laura and Johannes working on their farm. Image showing their farm from overhead, with rows of crops and two polytunnels.
Laura and Johannes are part of the Climate Farmers network, exercise regenerative practices on their farm in Schwerin, Germany. Whilst the number of regenerative farmers in Europe is on the rise, it remains a small community. Images courtesy of Climate Farmers.

He makes a good point, and it’s something I’ve been bumping against when researching this topic. For example, I discovered that McCains have published a regenerative agriculture framework with a commitment to implement regenerative agriculture practices across 100% of their potato acreage worldwide by the end of 2030.4 Publishing a framework is already a step ahead of many of its competitors, and the desire to get behind regenerative practices is arguably a great thing. But, looking at the fine print, the framework states that the “100% transition” actually means 100% of farmers should be onboarded with regenerative agriculture training and a soil health assessment by 2030, and “beginner” level practices implemented on 50% of McCain potato acres in the same time frame.4

Training and soil health assessments are good first steps to start the journey toward regenerative agriculture, but doing the training and initial base soil test doesn’t equal any regenerative practices in the field. It’s easy to see how well-meaning consumers could start buying products based on these carefully worded regenerative promises - thinking that a company is “leading the charge” of positive change. However, without regulations or definitions to hold companies accountable, consumers can be manipulated out of their cash.

After all, conducting a base assessment of the state of the soil does not mean the soil is improving, and it’s not clear if the training will be a one-hour webinar or a deep dive practical course - or who will be paying for the time farmers have to invest. So while it’s broadly positive that a huge company like McCains, whose chips I have enjoyed many a time, is getting involved, we should temper our excitement with some scrutiny about what any announcements about a “regenerative transition” really entail.

What do Bayer and regenerative agriculture have in common?

Bayer is one of the largest pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in the world. In 2016, Bayer acquired Monsanto, probably best known for creating “Roundup” – a glyphosate-based pesticide, and developing GMO crops resistant to said Roundup, called “Roundup-ready crops.” These pesticide-resistant crops have partly led to a massive expansion in synthetic pesticides because they survive what little else can—glyphosate. 

In crises, pesticides can save crops from damage and loss - important for food security and farmer livelihoods. However, relying on pesticides as an everyday tool can mask deeper problems in our food production systems. Roundup-ready crops made it possible to work outside the rhythms of nature and stop treating farms like the ecosystems they are. When you plant vast monocultures and spray them with a pesticide that kills insects and plants but not your crop, you’re no longer required to bring biodiversity back to the land to hunt pest species or to plant a diversity of crops to help mitigate disease in your crop. But there are, of course, consequences of taking your farm out of the ecosystem. As pests become resistant, farmers must spray even more pesticides.5

Read more about how monocultures impact food security

Glyphosate was found in the urine of 99% of the French study participants.6 The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans”, though the US EPA disagrees.7

When I was checking out Bayer’s website, I noticed that they refer to “regenerative” farming or agriculture 19 times on a single page.8 When I tried to get to the bottom of how they make regenerative farming happen, I found their patented GMO crop called CoverCress - a name that resembles a common regenerative agriculture practice known as ‘cover cropping’. Bayer's internal documents refer to CoverCress as “a new cash cover crop” that will be operated on a “closed loop production contract”.

Participating farmers will grow this GMO seed under contract with Bayer. The crop will be crushed by global agribusiness Bunge, who will deliver it to Chevron to convert it to aviation fuel. The profits will then be shared with CoverCress’s owners, you guessed it: Bayer, Chevron, and Bunge.9,10

Based on Bayer’s internal presentation, farmers will receive a fee to grow a GMO biodiesel crop, with profits shared between a few corporations who own the seed patent. And if we’re being reasonable, I believe we may have strayed from what a cover crop is supposed to be.

Close up image showing Bayer's patented crop ‘CoverCress’ growing.
Bayer’s patented crop ‘CoverCress’, a rotational cash crop designed to be converted into biofuel. Image courtesy of Bayer.

Cover crops are an important part of regenerative agriculture, grown to protect and enrich the soil. They can prevent soil erosion, suppress weeds, prevent soil compaction, and attract pollinators.11 Importantly, cover crops are incorporated into the soil rather than harvested (e.g. via roller-crimping or livestock grazing) to increase soil organic matter - a key component of fertility. As far as I understand, cover cropping doesn’t mean growing a patented biodiesel cash crop on contract for large agrifood companies who will deal with the processing and share the profits. Even describing CoverCress as a “new cash cover crop” is somewhat baffling to me. There may well be some benefits to the soil coming from growing CoverCress, depending on how many synthetic inputs and tractor passes are required before harvest. Still, a GMO biodiesel crop seems a long way from best practice cover cropping - where farmers grow a mixture of native grasses and wildflowers while the land recovers from cultivation.

If Bayer(-Monsanto) does want to support regenerative farming, that is good news. I want to believe that the future of farming is bright, and companies like Bayer will need to completely change how they do business and the products they develop if they want to keep up with the regenerative movement. It’s arguably important they should be part of the conversation. But we must be cautious not to let corporations promoting industrial farming start using the term “regenerative” unless they meaningfully contribute to healthier soils, ecosystem restoration, and social justice.

Agrifood corporations: regenerative or greenwashing?

To share some of the load, Bayer isn’t the only agrifood company that might be a little loose with the term “regenerative”. A 2023 report by FAIRR looked at 79 global food and retail giants worth over $3 trillion and representing a third of the sector. They found that 50 of the 79 mega corporations mention regenerative agriculture initiatives in their disclosures. But relatively few of them could back up their claims meaningfully.12

Of the 50 agrifood giants mentioning regenerative agriculture, only 36% had any quantified regenerative targets.12 The lack of targets shows a disconnect between what they’re saying and implementing. But even those with targets weren’t necessarily doing much better. Only 16% of the 50 companies discussed metrics or data, and only four had established baselines to measure progress.12 The most committed industry players will be disadvantaged if we don't establish coherent baselines. If two companies tell us they’ve “improved soil health” on 90% of farms - but we haven’t established what “improving soil health” means, they could get the same recognition with drastically different contributions to the regenerative movement. In turn, this ambiguity can confuse consumers and water down meaningful change. 

We can’t forget that farmers are at the heart of regenerative agriculture. These people will be making and implementing decisions on the ground. However, only 50% of the companies engage with their suppliers, and just 8% have pledged any concrete financial support to farmers transitioning from industrial to regenerative agriculture.12 Leaving the financial burden on the shoulders of farmers who often already shoulder large debts and unfair contracts with supermarkets may not be the fairest or most effective way to drive meaningful systems change.13

Where policy comes in

The bigger the company, the more significant the impact it could have on the global food system. However, the word “regenerative agriculture” must be grounded in meaningful change at the farm level.

Policy may be the best way to make this a reality. The EU has already announced it will ban generic and unbacked greenwashing terms like “green”, “conscious”, “eco-friendly”, and “carbon neutral” without proof of recognised excellent environmental performance relevant to the claim on products by 2026. Additionally, only sustainability labels based on approved certification schemes or established by public authorities will be allowed.14 If this goes ahead as planned, it could go a long way to ensure only companies walking the walk can make claims about their environmental impact. And if the term “regenerative agriculture” could be included in the legislation, it could go some way to prevent corporate greenwashing of the regenerative movement.

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