At the 2021 Cool Farm Alliance Annual General Meeting, Hal Hamilton, Co-Founder at the Sustainable Food Lab, moderated a thought-provoking session on “Enabling change – leverage points to scale regenerative agriculture and GHG emission reductions” with leading stakeholders from the agri-food industry and members of the Cool Farm Alliance:
Luc Beerens, Global Sustainable Sourcing Director at Mars, Margaret Henry, Director of Sustainability at PepsiCo and Katie Hoard, Global Director Sustainability at AB InBev.
The session discussed:
- The success factors required to scale regenerative agriculture, climate-smart agriculture and sustainable agriculture
- The elements needed to drive adoption by companies and farmers, and
- The role of the Cool Farm Alliance and Cool Farm Tool in sustainable agriculture programs.
The following is a summary of their vivid exchange on strategies, opportunities, and the reality on the ground that challenges corporates’ ambitions and calls for smart solutions that work for all stakeholders involved.
Hal Hamilton: The Cool Farm Tool is about measuring the impact of farm practices on soil health, biodiversity and water. How do you use the Alliance and the Cool Farm Tool in your strategy to drive these impacts?
Margaret Henry: While PepsiCo has previously been working on progress against goals such as millions of acres of land under regenerative agriculture, it is now shifting its focus on the actual impacts that those outcomes create. For example, impacts on farmer livelihood, climate change, biodiversity, water, etc.
The Cool Farm Tool is critical and helpful in measuring, understanding and tracking those impacts. It clearly establishes a balance between precise analysis of the conditions on-farm and directionally correct actions.
PepsiCo currently uses the Cool Farm Tool in the following contexts:
- On demonstration farms for extensive modelling, to learn the most impactful practices and help a community of farmers understand and adopt those sustainable practices.
- With individual farmers to guide them on their own individualised sustainable or regenerative agriculture journey.
- For a specific practice with a subset of farmers by using the Cool Farm Tool to measure the impact of those practices.
Luc Beerens: Next to ongoing core topics such as deforestation and social issues, Mars is increasingly interested in regenerative agriculture. We have been using the Cool Farm Tool in various projects such as rice in Spain or wheat production in Australia, to:
- measure the impact of our interventions with farmers
- identify new opportunities to drive further improvements in agriculture.
Katie Hoard: The Cool Farm Alliance lends credibility in its model as it is transparent about work being in progress, and it is a community where all members are working on the development together. AB InBev uses the Cool Farm Tool in two major ways:
- As an input to our internal agronomy team for insights on scope 3 emissions, how it ladders up into our broader climate commitment and to understand on a regional basis, what levers we need to focus on to reduce emissions;
- To help with the support we provide to farmers on the ground to implement sustainable practices that also maintain crop quality and profitability for farmers.
For AB InBev, one key feature of the Cool Farm Tool is its global applicability and accuracy because our teams in India, Brazil, the USA and other geographies can all leverage the tool to drive impact in our global supply chains.
Hal Hamilton: What are the elements of successful sustainability supply chain programs that create impact? What is needed to make the business case for regenerative agriculture to drive large scale adoption by farmers?
Luc Beerens: This is a challenging question. Mars found e.g. that carbon benefits alone do not add up to a good business case. The challenge we are trying to overcome is: How can we internalise the externalities and other elements of regenerative agriculture to drive investment into large scale regenerative agriculture instead of a few pilot programs in different parts of the world.
Margaret Henry: To design an impact program that achieves long term resilience for farmers, we need to create attractive short-term solutions for farmers that lead towards beneficial long-term practices. Like a 3-legged stool, three elements are crucial for a successful program: (1) technical/local agronomic knowledge, (2) understanding of the cultural importance of the practices, and (3) a financial piece: How do you get over a short-term gap in profitability when changing towards a long term business case for sustainable practices; Who else to bring to the table to de-risk that? How do we work with raising carbon markets?
Hal Hamilton: How do you see the relationship between technical providers of carbon and ecosystem service markets and GHG emission goals or regenerative agriculture goals play out in the next five years?
Margaret Henry: It is a complex and fast-evolving relationship. I will use the 3-legged stool analogy again: For carbon markets to achieve the desired impacts, they need to be coupled with other supports for farmers. The Cool Farm Alliance needs to understand the Cool Farm Tool’s role because carbon markets might ask for more technical rigour than the Cool Farm Tool has today. Carbon markets may become important and can help to create incentives to make strategies on regenerative agriculture a reality, but its influence is a dynamic one. For example, investments might not pay off if farmers sell the carbon credits elsewhere.
Katie Hoard: Carbon markets are one option in a toolbox of farmer incentives, which might be useful or apply to certain supply chains and markets. We are exploring how they fit into the broader approach we take as a company, but it is still unclear how or if we will include them at scale across our programs.
Luc Beerens: If getting a financial return for carbon savings incentivises farmers to take actions, why not adopt it? It could be a potential large-scale driver within and outside a company’s supply chain.
Hal Hamilton: Encouraging more diverse crop rotation is crucial for regenerative agriculture but hard to figure out in a simplified, highly efficient cash crop system. How do you go about that?
Katie Hoard: A benefit of regenerative agriculture and also a key factor to scale it, is the shift from a single crop to a whole crop-rotation focus. We are investing in research and sampling rotation to provide the best support to our farmers. However, the main challenges remain: how do we maintain what the farmer needs to transition to regenerative and sustainable practices while keeping the farmer at the centre? And how should we as companies collaborate across that?
Luc Beerens: Partnerships and collaboration with farmers, suppliers and off-takers are essential to building a scalable and efficient solution instead of trying to solve the problem alone.
Margaret Henry: I completely agree. The benefits of working on one crop are limited, so it is critical to bring in a whole farm perspective and collaborate on practices across rotations. If we want to achieve the impacts we are looking for, such as soil health benefits, farmers need to receive coherent messages from different buyers. The Cool Farm Alliance needs to work on how the Cool Farm Tool can help show the benefits, the interplay of rotations and the catalytic actions one can take for multiple crops.
Towards the end of the session, the speakers reflected together with the audience on the tipping points for pilot supply chain programmes to cause large scale adoption of improved agricultural practices and progress towards GHG emission reduction. On one side, political and advocacy interventions were named as being crucial to creating large-scale change. At the same time, speakers and audience agreed that companies can and are playing an important role through pilot programmes and partnerships. For scaling, it may be important to keep focussing on the right questions, such as who to bring to the table and understand the dynamic nature of the task and additional influences such as crop insurance or warranties, or intricacies evolving from dependencies on involved stakeholders.
When asked about the most important role of the Cool Farm Alliance, the panel argued that the Alliance can and should help drive actions on the ground by further improving the balance between robustness (case studies, whole-farm accounting), efficiency and ease of use of the Cool Farm Tool, by supporting companies and farmers in designing their business models, by enabling collaborations and community learning and by helping members of the Alliance get-to-action faster.
Hal Hamilton closed the session by suggesting that the use of the Cool Farm Tool will be even greater if organisations using it are supported with shared learning while considering the following questions: What are we all learning about implementing projects on the ground? What is working well and cost-effective? How do supply chain projects achieve carbon reduction goals if farmers also engage in carbon markets?
Learn more about the collaborations of the Sustainable Food Lab with company partners PepsiCo, AB InBev, Mars and others around scaling regenerative agriculture – with a current focus on the US Midwest – on the Scale Lab website.