Meanwhile, the food sector’s embrace of regeneration has been accelerating rapidly. Unilever announced its Regenerative Agriculture Principles on Earth Day this year. The aim: to provide guidance on how to achieve breakthrough progress in terms of “nourishing the soil, increasing biodiversity, improving water quality and climate resilience, capturing carbon and restoring and regenerating the land.”
These principles build on work Unilever has been doing since at least 2010, through its sustainable sourcing program. It explains the new urgency as follows: “It takes four million hectares of land to grow the raw materials for Unilever products, which are used by 2.5 billion people every day. Despite many years of working with sustainable agriculture standards in our supply chain, this has not been enough to reverse some very worrying trends such as soil depletion, biodiversity decline and poor water quality. And time is running out. More than one million species are threatened with extinction, threatening the very ecosystems on which we depend for life. And this ecological decline is set to get worse with climate change.”
Nor is it alone in the race to define the future of regenerative food and farming. More or less around the same time that Unilever made its announcement, PepsiCo committed to spread regenerative farming practices to some seven million acres, equivalent to its entire agricultural footprint.
Such changes will inevitably bring disruption to the world’s food chains, although it may be dwarfed at times by wider disruptions brought by new technologies, including precision fermentation, and new diets, increasingly focusing on plant-based and alternative protein products. Nestlé, for example, a company on whose Creating Shared Value advisory board I served for nine years, recently announced Vuna, its plant-based tuna alternative.
If you want to get a sense of how new technology could impact animal-based agriculture, I recommend RethinkX’s study of the impact of precision fermentation on the ranching and dairying industries in America. By 2030, they conclude, “demand for cow products will have fallen by 70%. Before we reach this point, the US cattle industry will be effectively bankrupt. By 2035, demand for cow products will have shrunk by 80% to 90%. Other livestock markets such as chicken, pig, and fish will follow a similar trajectory.”
Even if they are out by an order of magnitude, farmers and food businesses are now looking at epic disruption. I distrust market research forecast, but one recent report estimated that the plant-based market will reach $480.43bn (don’t you love those decimal points?) by 2024.
Nestlé also recently reported that 87% of Americans now include plant-based protein in their diets. As these disruptive trends push from the edge to the core, it may well be that regenerative agriculture will offer the food and farming sector a profitable way out of this existential trap. We intend to track progress in our Green Swans Observatory, which launches next week.