In the run-up to the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, and a critical moment for our planet, brands around the world have been coming under mounting pressure to be more transparent, environmentally friendly and sustainable with how they run their businesses.
One field that has long drawn scrutiny is that of farming and agriculture – an industry heavily relied on by millions of wellness brands, from established nutrition companies and food delivery startups to household names across beauty, fashion, fitness and much more.
However, sustainable methods of farming that have been practised for centuries — yet are only just drawing headlines — could provide a solution. We spoke to leading voices across the wellness landscape to ask: what role can regenerative agriculture play in reversing climate change?
What is regenerative agriculture?
“Regenerative agriculture is an umbrella term for food and fibre production that steps away from the degenerative farming practices responsible for the likes of soil erosion, biodiversity loss and water pollution,” says Ed Ayton, Chair of B Corp’s Regenerative Agriculture Working Group.
It describes any kind of farming that focuses on achieving a positive social or environmental impact, such as improved soil health, biodiversity gains, and even worm count, he adds.
Although responsible farming practices aren’t new, Ayton and Abby Rose, Co-Founder of award-winning podcast Farmerama Radio, believe regenerative agriculture is increasingly gaining attention because of its direct link to climate change – both in the eyes of consumers and investors.
“Regenerative agriculture isn’t new,” Rose tells Welltodo. “It’s essentially a way of farming with future generations in mind, where you leave the land better than you found it. Many cultures and indigenous communities have been farming like this forever.”
Instead, she says, regenerative agriculture has become a new buzzword. “The current climate and ecological crisis are on everyone’s radar. Our soils are being degraded at an alarming rate. It’s affecting our food security and causing extreme weather events. That impacts all of us, our livelihoods and our businesses.”
Despite the enormous challenge facing the planet, Rose believes regenerative – “or nature-friendly, agroecological” – farming practices provide a glimmer of hope.
“Regenerative farming isn’t just less bad, it actually has the potential to heal,” she explains. “It can help rebuild the soil while producing delicious, nutritious food and supporting the livelihoods of communities living on the land.”
Why are investors taking note?
As climate change has become the biggest story around, Ayton says he has seen regenerative practices become a key expectation for consumers, alongside high animal welfare and reduced chemical input. Now investors are taking note too.
“The heightened profile of environmental disasters over the years has made investors more diligent with their portfolios and in turn businesses more transparent, with almost all large companies now investing in sustainability and impact reporting,” he says.
Historically, according to sustainability advisor and Co-founder of Farms To Feed Us Catherine Chong, the main investment into regenerative agriculture has come via the food sector. However, of late, she’s also seen an increasing buzz coming from the fields of sustainable, responsible, and impact (SRI) investing in the US.
“Investors are watching it closely,” she tells Welltodo. “Over the past few years, we have seen increasing numbers and values of pledges by multinational food and drink conglomerates to invest directly in regenerative farmlands, such as Nestlé, Unilever, Pepsico, Kellogg, Danone and General Mills.”
Beyond food, agriculture is also incredibly important for fashion, pharmaceutical and beauty industries. “Beauty giant L’Oréal has pledged €50 million to support marine and forest ecosystem restoration and some of that investment should flow to regenerative agriculture,” continues Chong.
Although she feels the big players across the beauty and wellness industries have been quiet on regenerative agriculture up to now, she believes interest and excitement are growing.
“There is a huge interest in looking at how consumers would respond to regenerative agriculture branding,” she adds. “If we want to support large-scale transitioning from industrial to regenerative farming, investment needs to go onto the fields and there are lots of opportunities to work out how to build exciting and sensible ecological and social returns.”
The brands driving the regenerative agriculture movement
While investment into the sector is starting to pick up, household-name brands across the broad wellness landscape have long been championing the cause of regenerative agriculture.
“Patagonia is a shining light, with their efforts to establish the Regenerative Organic Certified, a new certification for food, textiles and personal care ingredients. Innocent has also been a driving force with its Farmer Innovation Fund, supporting smart new ways to reduce the impact of farming on climate change,” says Ayton.
“You only need to look around the B Corp community for examples of leading brands in the regenerative movement,” he adds. “Ultimately, it’s going to take a collective effort, so anyone looking at their supply chains and asking the important questions deserves an accolade.”
For Rose, natural organic skincare brand Weleda is a shining example of an established brand following best practice.
“Weleda has forever upheld regenerative principles in its business and its products. Its raw ingredients are farmed biodynamically and it has an amazing fair pay scheme throughout its supply network where it splits profits fairly.”
She also acknowledges the efforts taken by small scale businesses like Wunder Workshop, which produces turmeric-based health foods and has always sourced from small-scale farmers and food forests in Sri Lanka.
“Then you have D2C food producers like Riverford Organic, Hodmedods and Pipers Farm that are farming food from healthy soil and supporting a network of farmers to grow food that supports our wellbeing,” Rose adds. “These types of businesses are having an important impact on our future health and wellness.”
Beyond those examples, Rose doesn’t believe there are many brands that have genuinely incorporated regenerative agriculture and its principles into their business model.
However, she has noticed an increase in health professionals, nutritionists and brands tuning in and engaging with Farmerama Radio – especially its podcast series CEREAL, which was voted by The Telegraph as one of the best podcasts to listen to in lockdown.
“We give a voice to farmers to share the experiences and experiments happening on their farms,” she says. “It has become an important medium for farmers to learn from each other but also for the wider public to be inspired by the movement.”
The role of the wellness industry
With the COP26 Climate Summit currently in action, Rose says it is exciting to see how different countries are instigating change and believes the UK’s approach has been strengthened by its move away from European Union subsidies.
However, she admits, there’s a long way to go. “Only 2.7% of farming in the UK is organic. If you look at Europe and North America, since WWII our farming has been completely focused on volume – or yield – at all costs.
“Now, as the ecological effects of 70 years of intensive farming practices are in plain view, in the form of significant climate events, we are seeing a paradigm shift in farming,” she continues.
“Many farmers are looking at how they can heal their soils, promote biodiversity, and increase yield without the need to rely on synthetic chemicals, pesticides, and disturbing the soil. It is possible, but it takes time.”
Nevertheless, Rose believes the wellness industry at large is well placed to advocate and champion the cause of regenerative agriculture – and that starts by business owners recognising their brands can be a vehicle for healing.
“I hope the wellness industry sees that regenerative agriculture is about having a reverence for life – and the regenerative capacity of the life systems we are part of on every level,” she says.
“It comes from a mindset of abundance rather than extraction. It’s about having reverence for the ingredients you offer, the people you work with, the farmers, packers, management, right through to your customers.”
Ultimately, Rose says, that starts by placing greater value on the work done by farmers and growers and will rely on businesses across the board working more closely with their supply chain.
“We have a collective responsibility to help farmers transform their practices,” she says. “We created this system of extraction which set the conditions for farmers, now we must collectively repair it,” she says.
Adding: “Farmers and growers are the people interacting most directly with our land, and are the greatest hope for change. If we expect them to be responsible for restoring natural systems and producing enough healthy food to feed us all, then we must treat them with dignity and celebrate the life-giving work they are doing.”
How To Incorporate Regenerative Agriculture Into Your Business Model
- “Looking for organic certification is a good start,” says Ayton. “Monitoring tools are improving that help you measure your impact and there are platforms businesses can use to support farms undergoing conversion to regenerative methods, through sponsorship, carbon balancing or sharing best practice.”
- “Do not rely on carbon offsetting schemes that plant trees elsewhere,” says Rose. “It is possible to establish thriving habitats within a farming system which helps restore the planet’s natural carbon cycles. Indigenous communities have been doing it for centuries.”
- “Establish good relationships with your suppliers,” says Ayton. “Talk to them about their impact, how they monitor water usage or greenhouse gas emissions. Ask what support they need from you to convert to regenerative practices. The element of trust required cannot be overestimated.”
- “Listen and learn,” says Rose. “This isn’t about ticking boxes, it’s about engaging with a fundamentally different way of seeing landscapes and relationships. Go to talks and events, get to know your farmers, listen to podcasts like Farmerama Radio, even start a vegetable patch in your office.”
- “Be patient,” says Rose. “Work with your existing farmers and growers and build a framework that helps them transition to more nature-friendly – or regenerative – practices. Just know that this takes time.”