As we stride ever nearer to the 2030 climate targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and keep global temperature rise capped, countries and businesses continue to take further responsibility for their environmental impact and are making huge commitments to reduce it.
Researchers recently concluded in Science that world climate goals cannot be achieved without fundamental changes to our food system and the way that food is produced.
Like other food companies, Nestlé’s agricultural supply chain and sourcing of ingredients is responsible for 71.4% of its emissions, with the lion’s share of these emissions going to dairy and livestock production. So, Nestlé has made some strong commitments to limiting its environmental damage in relation to agriculture. It has promised that it will:
- reduce emissions by 20%
- source 20% of key ingredients through regenerative agricultural methods
- use 100% certified sustainable palm oil by 2023 and 100% certified cocoa and coffee
- reduce emissions by 50%
- source 50% of key ingredients through regenerative agricultural methods
- be net zero in carbon
- deliver a regenerative food system at scale
Nestlé (among others such as Cargill, Danone and Walmart) seem to have jumped on the regenerative agriculture bandwagon, identifying this in its Net Zero Roadmap as one of the most effective ways to reduce the company’s agricultural environmental impact.
Regenerative farming, which centres on building soil health, is one promising pathway for decreasing agriculture’s carbon footprint. But how does a large food company, such as Nestlé, motivate the multitude of farmers in its supply chain to adopt farming practices that bind carbon in the soil? How does it achieve this across varying farm archetypes of different scales? And how do we know that these agricultural practices are truly sequestering carbon, and for how long? Or is ‘regenerative’ the new ‘sustainable’ – a vague buzzword that sounds meaningful but is far too broad to be pinned down?
Nestlé is clearly taking its climate commitments seriously as it has worked with the Science Based Targets initiative, taken note of IPCC reports and targets, looked at farm carbon accounting with the Cool Farm Tool, and teamed up with ETH Zurich Sustainability in Business Lab. But scratch below the surface to find out whether the regenerative talk is just that – talk.
Nestle’s Net Zero Roadmap sees pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, scale up initiatives to absorb more carbon from the atmosphere, improve soil health, invest in farmer livelihoods and animal welfare, help develop climate-resilient and more equitable farming communities, and much more. It’s safe to say that Nestlé has its work cut out with these targets, but it is reassuring to see a company of that scale commit to the regenerative movement.
Unlike many of today’s companies, Nestlé sees livestock farming as a vital part of the solution to achieve net zero in agriculture. Indeed, Nestlé has collaborated with ETH Zurich Sustainability in Business Lab on the ‘Towards Climate Positive Dairy Farms’ report which observes three different archetypes of farms from South America, Central America and Asia. Based on expert interviews and literature, a model that assesses abatement potential and the cost of different abatement options was developed. In this context, abatement simply means curbing emissions in order to reduce the concentration of certain gases and contaminants in our environment. This report recognises that different locations, types of farms and landscapes, require different solutions and it concludes the best solutions to reduce emissions associated with livestock farming include:
- selective breeding programmes to optimise fertility, yield and eventually GHG emissions in cattle, in order to lower emissions by 2.4%;
- heat abatement to reduce heat stress and increase milk production, lowering carbon emissions by up to 5.1%;
- use of silvopasture, where trees are incorporated in pasture, allowing for carbon sequestration where trees are planted, and shade for cows; additionally, trees can be used as income generators through offsetting schemes and sale of wood products, though this would require large management change, but this could see emissions cut by 24%;
- manure management and capture of biogases through biodigesters.
At first glance, it seems that Nestlé have got the regenerative memo, particularly with its recommendations to incorporate silvopasture. However, when you zoom in on the fine print, none of these recommendations are made to farms with permanently housed livestock. Indeed, the target comes across as somewhat counter-productive as it is pledging to improve soil health and animal welfare, but does not appear to join the dots between housed livestock, the feed they require, their welfare, manure management, soil health and environmental impact. This demonstrates that Nestlé is really playing around the edges, picking the low hanging fruit and continuing to intensify the broken system for maximum efficiency.
Whilst we can appreciate that it is a huge system to reshape, the commitment to regenerative agriculture must be followed through, not just talked about. So long as Nestlé is sourcing its ingredients from permanently housed livestock, it’s unlikely its environmental impact will see a huge improvement. Intensifying the system for yield efficiency will only intensify the environmental problems.
It can be quite easy for corporations to get locked into ‘carbon tunnel vision’ where reducing the carbon footprint and creating ‘climate-smart solutions’ often causes unintended consequences such as biodiversity loss or different forms of pollution. Regenerative agriculture, in theory, helps to avoid these unintended consequences as it follows the principles of farming with nature and takes a whole-system approach.
Soil and forest
Nestlé recognises that the conversion of natural landscapes for ingredients in its supply chain is estimated to account for between 25-35% of its total ingredient emissions. For key crop supply chains, such as cocoa, coffee, palm oil and soybean, the proportion can be even higher. Nestlé has longer-term ambitions to make conservation and restoration standard practice throughout its supply chains, including caring for soil health and introducing new agricultural practices to support nutrient uptake, water retention and fertility, and restore the soil’s carbon content. There’s talk of reduced tillage or ’no till’, cover cropping, multiple crop rotation and switching to organic fertilisers for most soil-grown ingredients. Some circularity will be introduced with composting of agricultural waste to enrich the soil with nutrients.
These are great ideas, based on regenerative principles, which is encouraging to see from such a large company. However, it seems oxymoronic to talk about intensifying housed livestock production in one chapter, then improving soil health in the next, without observing the symbiotic relationship between livestock and soil health in a truly regenerative system. Again, Nestlé seems to be saying all the right things, but the initiatives remain disjointed.
Nestlé makes a further commitment to restore rainforest and high carbon stock or high conservation value (i.e., areas of land that have huge carbon sequestration potential), but in the same breath it promises an increase in plant-based ingredients, specifically in its frozen meals, pizzas and dairy categories. These plant-based alternatives, such as soy, palm oil, almonds, coconut oil and jackfruit have become ubiquitous with the rise of veganism and are often sourced from forested areas. We can all be in agreement that we need to eat less but better meat and dairy products, but it is essential to also be conscious of meat substitutes, their origin and environmental and social impact. Nestlé appears to contradict itself as it recognises livestock farming and regenerative agriculture as a solution to climate change, but also plans to scale up plant-based ingredients associated with deforestation and environmental damage.
Nevertheless, it’s significant that such a large corporation with so much market influence is working towards net zero in carbon and interested in regenerative agricultural practices. Nestlé has a clear vision, it sees its environmental impact and wants to improve it. This calls for a measurement and common framework of what an environmentally positive regenerative agricultural system looks like, in order to enable, benchmark and track this supply chain-wide progress. This is an opportunity for large corporations such as Nestlé to collaborate with third-party certifiers and measurement tools like the Global Farm Metric to ensure the changes it makes to its systems are good for the environment.
Nestlé recognises that these agricultural developments are also subject to the local context and that blanket changes across many different farming systems will see negative consequences too. Use of the Global Farm Metric would help keep an eye on these local contexts to ensure that any changes being made will benefit the land and people. The Global Farm Metric would also help avoid the ‘carbon tunnel vision’ trap as it takes a holistic measure of the whole farming system, including water, soil, biodiversity, social impacts and much more.
Overall, this is a great opportunity for change with such a huge player willing to operate differently. Nestlé should be proud of the start it’s making and continue to look to the future, working with others, and aiming to join up the dots in its large-scale processes. An ability to demonstrate this progress, through the Global Farm Metric, would be beneficial for everyone involved in Nestlé’s operations, from the primary producers of agricultural commodities, right through to the consumers.