soil crops field

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Regenerative agriculture is about working with the soil rather than against it, and it has yielded results

We have 60 harvests left to grow food. That was the warning from the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, six years ago. Around a third of the world’s soil is degraded, unable to grow the food we need to feed a growing population – yet intensive farming practices continue to damage soil, restricting its ability to grow crops. Together, we can reverse that trend.

Regenerative agriculture can restore soil’s health, increase biodiversity, reduce pollution and capture vast amounts of carbon. Farmers need co-operatives, brands and retailers to support that change and adopt their own regenerative practices.

France is Europe’s largest agricultural producer. The northern region of France, Santerre in particular, grows vast quantities of crops, yet farmers there have suffered from a steady productivity decrease. More frequent and intense droughts have occurred, while fertiliser and pesticide use has increased to compensate for the loss of natural fertility and resilience in the soil.

Reaching breaking point, some have decided to stop ploughing their land. They now use diverse cover crops to make sure their land is covered most of the year, diversifying and extending crop rotations as they go. This is what regenerative agriculture is about: working with the soil rather than against it. It has yielded results. Running costs are down and the soil is showing signs of greater resilience, retaining humidity, with seeds germinating more easily than previous years. Farmers are learning what crop variety and rotation works best, monitoring progress by measuring the evolution of organic matter in their soil. Further benefits have become evident, with erosion decreasing and soil fertility increasing.

Such change isn’t easy for the majority of farmers. Many have suffered financially and couldn’t survive a prolonged production slump. They need financial and technical help. What is happening in Santerre’s food supply chain demonstrates how that help can be provided.

In France, 75% of farmers are part of one of the country’s 2,600 co-operatives, which recognise the need to evolve the agricultural model, while facing the immense challenge of undertaking that transition. Bringing together 8,500 farmers, the NORIAP co-operative is one of the largest in northern France, evolving to integrate soil health in its offering. But despite co-operatives being uniquely placed to support farmers’ transition, they too need brands and retailers to change to realise this.

Many brands have committed to protect the environment. Still they often buy raw materials from traders prioritising large volumes and better prices, with little understanding of their origins. Significant amounts of a company’s environmental impact comes from the agricultural fields, but many brands have never been further away from the land. Working against this trend, some are finding ways to support farmers in their supply chain.

Nestlé sources potatoes, wheat and sugar from northern France with an equal focus on soil health and crops. The questions brands need to ask are: Who are the farmers in my supply chain? And how are those farms performing in terms of soil health? In collaboration with Earthworm and partners of the Living Soils initiative, Nestlé measures soil health, so support and incentives are tailored to a farmer’s needs.

Brands can still overlook what is happening in the field because retailers have not valued the origin and environmental qualities of their products. With the exception of organic products, the primary pressure from retailers to brands is still price.

The involvement of Lidl and its suppliers in northern France demonstrates just how price and sustainability do not have to be mutually exclusive. Lidl is working to be a trusted partner to co-operatives and farmers; to listen and learn from them, so that practical solutions can be found that serve both the land and the consumer.

In that sense, the Living Soils Initiative is bringing together retailers, brands and cooperatives to create systemic change and a revolution in thinking to look at supply chain challenges. Doing so can help regenerate soil and business.