Looking at the food sector news last quarter, I found that they fell into three categories: the shift to regenerative agriculture; changing diets; and reducing food waste.
Changing how we grow food, what we eat and how we value the resources embedded in our food are the three legs of food system transformation. Here’s what the major food companies did or didn’t do on each this quarter.
Partnerships underpin the regenerative march
Changing from an extractive form of agriculture to a regenerative one can’t be isolated to a single company or a single company’s entire value chain — it must be a group effort.
The Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI), which includes most major food corporations such as Nestlé, Danone, Unilever and PepsiCo, released its Regenerating Together framework in September that promises to harmonize regenerative approaches across its 170 members. While the alignment across many companies is positive, the lack of inclusion of methane emissions or social considerations shows room for further improvement.
One SAI member, PepsiCo, announced a $120 million commitment in partnership with Walmart (which is not an SAI member) to invest in financial, agronomic and social programs to support farmers adopting regenerative practices on more than 2 million acres in North America. This collaboration between the two companies builds on their work since 2016 through the Midwest Row Crop Collaboration. It emphasizes improved soil health and water quality before touching on the potential carbon impact.
And it was not the only one to show a shift toward these outcomes.
Cargill announced two new partnerships. The first, with the Soil Health Institute, is on a three-year, $3 million initiative to implement and assess the effectiveness of regenerative practices to improve water storage and availability in farms’ soil across North America. The second is with the New York Outcomes Fund, a pay-for-performance financing mechanism to transition farmland in the state.
ADM, another of PepsiCo’s perennial partners, is expanding its regenerative agriculture program after enrolling 1 million acres last year. It plans to reach 2 million acres by the end of this year on the way to 4 million acres by 2025.
The final notable announcement in this category comes from Mars through its largest brand, Royal Canin. It is partnering with Soil Capital, one of Europe’s leading sustainable agronomy firms, to support farmers transitioning around 750,000 acres in France and Belgium. The company also signaled its interest in adapting the structure to North America, Latin America and Asia.
Changing how we grow our food continues to dominate large food companies’ sustainability strategies. But, according to some, it’s still not enough investment. The FAIRR Initiative published an analysis of regenerative agriculture commitments from the 79 largest publicly traded food, agriculture and retail companies. While 50 of these 79 companies discuss regenerative agriculture in their investor disclosures, only four have financial support targets to help the farmers in their value chains.
And as much as these companies tout their regenerative agriculture programs, emissions are still heading in the wrong direction for many. And the other two legs of the three-legged stool of food system transformation need even more love.
Shifting diets muddles along
Given that only five large food companies have set targets to increase the sales of healthy food, it’s not a surprise that I only saw a few new actions announced to shift diets towards less extractive and more nutritious options.
In the retail segment, Albertsons announced that its Sincerely Health platform will incorporate nutritional guidance aligned to the USDA MyPlate recommendations for its grocery apps. The offering will provide nutritional details and incentivize users to set and meet nutrition goals with in-store rewards. Carrefour announced a supplier coalition that includes Danone and Unilever to drive plant-based product sales.
On the brand side, Danone North America’s foundation announced $250,000 in grants to community-based projects promoting sustainable, local food systems. The recipients of the grants focus primarily on shifting diets and implementing food-as-medicine approaches.
The last update for this category shows that progress isn’t black and white. JBS, which environmental advocates claim have directly or indirectly deforested 3.7 million acres in Brazil since 2008, has broken ground on a $62 million cultivated meat research facility in Brazil. While its deforestation record must be improved, perhaps a breakthrough for this segment could come from the new facility.
To put these actions into context, I’ll turn to the World Benchmarking Alliance, which released its updated Food and Agriculture Benchmark this week. According to the report, of the world’s 350 largest food and agriculture companies, only 49 have publicly available information on how they aim to increase the nutritional quality of their offerings. As the EAT-Lancet Commission has made clear, we have to both change how we grow our food and what we eat to equitably sustain future generations. More action is clearly needed on this second component.
Reducing food waste lacks urgency
Accepting 40 percent losses across the value chain makes no sense, yet we continue to waste over a trillion dollars in food annually.
While very few new actions were announced to address this urgent challenge, some leading food companies have released heartening results in their quest to cut food waste. In the latest Champions 12.3 progress report (named after the SDG goal to cut food loss and waste by 50 percent by 2030), IKEA reported a 54 percent reduction. Tesco and Kellogg’s also reduced their food waste by over 40 percent.
Aldi actually did start a new project, partnering with The Pacific Coast Food Waste Commitment to reduce waste in its 99 California stores. Further up the value chain, Nestlé and Cargill will partner to turn cocoa shells into nitrogen fertilizers in the U.K. and Ireland.
With few new actions to report, I will instead note that a bipartisan bill has been introduced at the federal level. The No Time to Waste Act, if passed, will help accelerate the reduction of food loss and waste in the U.S. Policy change is a critical driver of sustainability and businesses are increasingly recognizing it as such. But who will put their money where their mouth is and support the new law?