Why the future of farming lies in regenerative agriculture

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Credit: PepsiCo

Sean Westcott is Senior Vice President R&D Europe at PepsiCo.

With exciting new processes, innovations and technologies, farming today is more precise, more productive and more sustainable than ever before. The transformation has been startling. Not only has technology helped grow more food, it made its quality higher while at the same time helping to reduce the environmental impact of producing it.

But we can go further, faster. The European Union is taking steps to make agriculture more sustainable, through the European Green Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy. Next week, the European Commission is set to unveil its proposal to define  carbon farming, aiming at creating a business model for growers to take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in the soil through measures like crop rotation, cover crops, and reduced tillage.

We support these measures. However, to succeed, we must co-create the right regulatory framework and financial incentives to integrate technology into agriculture. We need to roll out the latest farming techniques, including regenerative agriculture, which can help the sector more climate neutral. Indeed, regenerative agriculture practices can sequester carbon more effectively than any other measures in farming today.

While we work closely with our growers to test and try new farming techniques, we are also aware of the fact that we cannot create the right environment to foster sustainable farming practices on our own. This is why we are proud members of the One Planet Business for Biodiversity coalition where we work with frontrunners from the business community to scale up regenerative agriculture and to drive action to protect and restore biodiversity within value chains.

Regenerative agriculture describes a system of farming principles and practices that rehabilitates and enhances the entire ecosystem of the soil. It can rebuild soil organic matter and restore degraded soil biodiversity. Essentially, regenerative agriculture fights the climate crisis by sucking carbon from the air and putting it in the ground. It offers one of the greatest opportunities to help address human and climate health while supporting farmers. The key is that it does more than just sustain the ground – regenerative agriculture actually improves it, using technologies that revitalise the soil and the environment.

At PepsiCo, we are working to bring the latest tech to our farming operations, harnessing data to provide new insights into crop performance, and growing food in a way that revitalises the earth and strengthens farming. Healthy soil begins with a healthy stream of data. Management of data is becoming a cornerstone of our farming processes, helping us measure progress and understand where we can have the optimum impact.

Take our iCrop technology, which we have used with farmers over the past ten years, capturing data across 55,000 hectares of potato production in 16 markets in Europe. We currently track over a million crop data points through iCrop, giving farmers insights into the correlation between soil type, weather, irrigation and water usage, so they can grow more with less. Thanks to iCrop, our potato growers in Spain have increased their water irrigation accuracy from 48% to 93%.

Another programme, Opti-Oat, analyses how to grow the perfect oat by using more than a million data points to develop our Oat Growth Guide. That guide is freely available and has helped our growers to optimise resources, improve yields and create a more sustainable source of oats.

These innovations are a big part of our actions to ensure that our agriculture is sustainable. And they depend on data, which help us find environmentally-friendly solutions, including precision agriculture. Technology is key to one of the most important sustainability measures that we are rolling out, on regenerative agriculture.

Alongside technology, we also use some traditional farming techniques to naturally build soil health, including crop rotation, which can naturally regenerate the soil. For example, we work with Portuguese farmers to develop a new crop, peanuts, which have nitrogen-fixing properties and improve soil health naturally. These additional measures can further help the regenerative agriculture process.

We want to accelerate regenerative practices across Europe. Our Positive Agriculture programme has three main targets for 2030: spread the adoption of regenerative agriculture practices across the seven million acres of farmland that we cultivate; sustainably source 100% of our key seasoning, apple, beet and cane sugar, and corn sweetener; and improve the livelihood communities of more than one million people in our agricultural supply chains and communities.

But if we are to speed up regenerative practices, we need a regulatory framework and financial incentives to ensure uptake. To generate a healthy stream of data, public policy needs to incentivise farmers to use digital technologies and utilise data sharing.

We also need more investment and research into green technologies and standards and to measure biodiversity and soil health. There are many new developments in farming technology, making it difficult for any farmer to keep up to date on the latest innovations. Government and buyers need to help farmers see through the clutter, providing direction and support around technologies that make a real impact.

Finally, we need a supportive policy framework that can make regenerative agricultural practices business relevant and appealing for farmers. This requires a coherent approach across all significant financial mechanisms and political frameworks such as CAP, the biodiversity strategy and the work that is being considered around the carbon farming initiative.

As one of the world’s leading food and beverage companies, PepsiCo depends on a resilient food system. With our scale, we have an opportunity and responsibility to drive meaningful change. We can use our data resources to ensure that future food needs will be met while also protecting and regenerating our planet. And we hope the EU will join us in supporting innovative regenerative practices that build soil health, sequester carbon and reduce emissions.

 

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