Interview: Why Nestlé and Waitrose are investing in regenerative farming

In recent months, talk of regenerative farming in the grocery industry has spiked, as many leading brands and retailers from Ocado to Innocent Drinks and Unilever have unveiled new sustainable schemes.

Two notable examples include FMCG conglomerate Nestlé – which earlier this year teamed up with drinks giant Diageo to launch a regenerative agriculture initiative based in Yorkshire – and grocery retailer Waitrose – which just last week debuted a new regenerative scheme for its British suppliers at a Hampshire farm conference.

We caught up with Waitrose senior agriculture manager Jake Pickering and Nestlé regenerative lead Matt Ryan to discover exactly what regenerative farming is, why companies are joining together to invest in it, and how such initiatives will impact consumers.

So what exactly is regenerative farming?

Nestlé and Waitrose admit there isn’t a set definition for regenerative farming – yet ‘harmony’ seems to be a keyword.

Pickering says: “Farming in harmony with nature. It’s about ensuring we’re doing the best we possibly can by mother nature while producing really great food”.

Ryan’s description is not dissimilar, and while he says that there is not a set definition, which makes it a “a bit of a challenge” for consumers and non-experts alike, he adds that regenerative agriculture can be looked at with a “fairly holistic approach to farming and producing food in harmony with nature”.

“It’s focused primarily on improving the health of soils, and the benefits that we can get from that,” he adds.

The two companies’ latest initiatives demonstrate just that. Last week Waitrose revealed it would be supporting more than 2,000 of its suppliers to move to nature-friendly farming practices in a bid to boost the financial resilience of farms.

It aims to tackle issues such as top-soil erosion, while the new scheme will also develop plans for its British farmers to access affordable finance and provide resources to support their transition to regenerative and low-carbon farming.

Waitrose Leckford farm

Waitrose Leckford farm

“It’s about using the natural environment to produce a more nutrient-dense, healthier product, expanding biodiversity, having more nature-rich environments within our farmers and growers supply base,” Pickering says.

However, he adds that “crucially, it’s about really dealing with what is possible within each individual farm.”

Pickering highlights that one of the great challenges in defining regenerative agriculture stems from the fact that its success often relies on the scheme’s adaptability to cater for every different farmer and adjust to their needs – a sentiment shared by Nestlé.

Developed from the first iteration of its net-zero roadmap in 2020, Nestlé’s current regenerative scheme can be divided into five principles: minimising soil disturbances; leaving living roots in the ground; protecting the soil surface; maintaining crop diversity; and utilising livestock.

However, Ryan offers a sixth principle: “I think the sixth principle really is about the context. For example, in some situations, livestock integration might not be possible, so it’s making sure that you’re remaining as relevant to the local landscape as you possibly can. Because it’s not a set menu with regenerative agriculture.”

“You don’t necessarily get a rubber stamp to say that you’re regenerative, it’s a journey, rather than a destination, to really try and work with nature as much as you possibly can, rather than relying too much on synthetic inputs, fossil fuels, or similar,” he explains.

Reducing carbon footprint

While the definition of regenerative farming may be broad and subject to variations, according to both Nestlé and Waitrose, the pace at which companies should be adopting regenerative agriculture certainly is not.

Ryan explains the urgency of time: “We haven’t gone into this considering to be primarily a value proposition for the brand. The reasons for investing in regenerative agriculture and wanting to scale this up is mainly because of our carbon footprint.”

He says that roughly 70% of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with Nestle’s portfolio is related to how it sources its ingredients.

“So emissions that are coming from our farms and from processing is the biggest contributor to our total carbon footprint.

“We obviously need to act and act quickly to try and bring emissions down within our supply chain, and the idea that regenerative agriculture is able to reduce emissions, reduce the dependence on fossil fuel related inputs, and potentially store more carbon in the soil means that’s a really compelling initiative for us to try to scale up within our business.”

Collaboration is key

Having first collaborated with Diageo in March on the Yorkshire based LENS initiative – a co-active project bringing together businesses and farmers to improve the resilience of local landscapes – the two companies decided to expand and invest in further regenerative farming measures across almost 700 hectares of arable land in the county.

Ryan says it is crucial for there to be industry-wide collaboration in regenerative farming schemes.

“The idea is really to try and get businesses to work together in the future, as the climate continues to change and weather conditions become even more extreme, or longer term carbon issues,” says Ryan.

“So we think that it’s a responsibility of ours and of other major food businesses in the world to try to build as much resilience within the agricultural sector as possible to buffer against the effects of extreme weather, but also geopolitical issues as well.”

Waitrose shares similar sentiments. “There are already other brands we’re working with and we will look to work with within the industry to have a set of metrics that is comparable so that suppliers can really engage with this across the board. We’re not in there simply to preach from the sidelines. Collaboration is absolutely key,” Pickering explains.

How does it impact consumers and farmers

Regenerative farming is a mammoth undertaking at FMCG giant Nestlé.

With a portfolio of over 2,000 brands including grocery favourites Nespresso, Cheerios and KitKat, and an “enormous” supply chain of hundreds of thousands of farmers around the world, Ryan adds that simply procuring the data of these growers’ current agriculture practices was “a real task in itself”.

Despite this, the company announced in 2023 it had committed to sourcing 20% of raw materials from farms that are engaging in regenerative farming by 2025, to rise to 50% by 2030. Nestlé is now at 15.2%.

Chart depicting Nestlé’s regenerative practices

It is also an expensive venture. As of this month, Nestlé has invested over 1.2bn Swiss francs (£1.04bn) into starting the transition towards regenerative farming.

For Waitrose, its regenerative scheme is not only a preventative initiative, but also actively sought out by its customers.

“We get out in store and speak to our customers, and this is something that’s coming up more and more,” Pickering states.

Is the “era of cheap  food” really over?

In an interview with The Telegraph last week, Waitrose executive director James Bailey claimed the “era of cheap food is over”, when considering the changing consumer behaviour surrounding people’s health as well as the environmental and societal impacts of “cheap food”.

However, Pickering insists that regenerative farming will not impact consumer food prices and says there will “always be exceptional value” at Waitrose.

“It’s about delivering regenerative agriculture, and it doesn’t have to cost more money. We can deliver this while being the very best value in the market.

“We’ve seen that already in many of the things we’ve done across animal welfare. We’ve done that without significantly increasing the cost, so we know it can be done, and we would do the same in terms of farming in harmony with nature,” adds Pickering.

On the other hand, for Nestlé a promise about future consumer prices isn’t as straight forward. Instead, when asked, Ryan points out that without preventative regenerative agriculture schemes, prices are likely to increase in the future regardless.

“Regenerative agriculture has [the promise] to build resilience within these local supply chains to effectively buffer against those potential price increases.”

“If we continue to see a lack of resilience in the supply chain, then consumers will be exposed to those variations in price going forward, and then that will be something that I don’t think is going to get any better by the way that the climate is changing.”

However, he acknowledges that if Nestlé can source things locally, “it may actually be that we see the opposite and we see that things might be able to remain a little bit more stable with fewer short, sharp price increases for commodities globally.”

Ultimately, the road to nature-friendly farming practices is not a simple or straightforward one, but it’s a path many brands and retailers are willing and wanting to go take.

Not only does a move to regenerative agriculture support farmers and consumers with better practices and more sustainable food, it is crucial in making a real environmental impact that will have benefits for years to come.

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