Farmers are the key to a regenerative future but have not been adequately supported in its delivery. Thankfully there are some solutions to this challenge
Europe’s agriculture industry, and the farmers at its heart, are under pressure. The challenges faced by farmers are numerous. From the stresses of climate change, rising energy and input prices, as well as the costs associated with the regenerative transition, to the ever-decreasing number of young farmers staying in an industry already stretched for both brains and brawn, over the coming decades.
To discuss these issues Bayer Crop Science and Innovation Forum convened a webinar, in which an expert panel discussed how agri-food stakeholders can support European farmers in the regenerative transition.
In the webinar, Rob Shepherd and Bram Van Hecke put some of the challenges that farmers are facing in the regenerative transition to the rest of the panel. The panellists Jens Hartmann from Bayer Crop Science, Marie Ellul from Mondelēz International and Natalie Smith from Tesco then responded with a discussion on how other supply chain actors can collaborate to scale solutions, and support farmers in a just transition to regenerative agriculture.
To follow is a summary of the key points, challenges and solutions discussed. To watch the whole video recording, including the Q&A session, click here. The discussion is also available as a podcast here.
Many farmers have the desire and drive to transition to regenerative agriculture but lack the financing.
Other actors in the agrifood supply chain must help farmers to share the cost of transition, notably during the first years in which yield may drop.
Agrifood actors must also find ways to increase farmers’ knowledge and trust around regenerative agriculture. These could include value-chain sharing, or peer-to-peer learning mechanisms.
An outcome-based system of regenerative farming is desirable. Outcomes should include indicators such as yield, biodiversity, and soil health. Datasets must support this approach.
Technology and innovation must play a key role in helping farmers to measure baselines in soil health and carbon stock, so that they can measure and monetise progress.
There is a need to engage consumers in the regeneration narrative, so that they’re more likely to prioritise products and brands farming regeneratively
The panel discussion focused around five main areas of farmer challenges: data and technology; lack of regenerative knowledge and expertise; lack of risk assurance and funding; lack of young farmers; and, consumer communication.
Data and technology
Farmers are unsure about which chemical inputs they will be allowed to use – the loss of glyphosate could be a huge challenge for UK farmers, for instance.
It is likely that farmers will have to invest a lot of money into very expensive new specialist equipment – they may then suffer lower yields. Other farmers could also then be deterred.
It is challenging to understand baselines when approaching regenerative farming. Farmers need to understand their starting point before they can measure outcomes.
There are many carbon measurement tools available, all giving slightly different results and answers.
There is a lack of consistent and credible data from farmers through life cycle analyses – it is difficult to understand regenerative impacts and outcomes.
There is a need for information on new chemical armoury or regenerative replacements.
Pesticide progress is required at a realistic price point.
Innovation represents a huge opportunity to help farmers. Corporate actors in the value chain can help to support that innovation, and discern what is useful.
Technology offers opportunities to calculate baselines – digitalisation of data is a massively important opportunity.
Tesco advises farmers to stick to one carbon measurement tool, which can provide a baseline from which to continue measuring change.
There is a need to reach an outcomes-based system of regenerative farming. These could be yield, biodiversity, soil health. Datasets must support this approach.
Lack of regenerative knowledge and expertise
Many farmers do need clearer information and knowledge-sharing around regenerative practices.
Knowledge-sharing can also help farmers to trust that the changes they are being asked to make by brands will not jeopardise their yields and crops in the long-run.
There is a need to build trust between farmers and brand partners, to show them that new practices are having tangible outcomes on the ground. This builds motivation.
Brands and supply-chain partners can create educational online materials for farmers – to offer technical training modules.
There are opportunities for peer-to-peer sharing of good practices between farmers.
Training on the ground should involve experts, with the full array of stakeholders, so that farmers can have visibility of the full value-chain themselves.
All stakeholders need to understand better the challenges for every actor in the supply-chain better. There are opportunities to convene supply chains into groups for knowledge sharing and collaboration – for example Tesco’s sustainable farming groups.
Lack of risk assurance and funding
Currently there is no monetary advantage for many farmers switching to regenerative agriculture – it is often running on the altruism of farmers.
We need to address the risk of switching to regenerative agriculture, and suffering loss of yields and lower profits.
Farmers are not getting a price premium that is attracting them towards more sustainable farming.
Natural capital markets and payments for ecosystem services are in their infancy still. There are many questions, including who pays for them.
There is a lack of policy in place (particularly in the UK) to convince companies to commit to insetting schemes to support farmers to monetise their natural capital.
More clarity over ownership of natural capital is required: farmers fear that their natural capital will be taken from them or sold under them with no premium, by other actors in the supply chain.
Supermarkets and other supply-chain actors seem unwilling to pay the price for, or put a premium on, regeneratively-sourced products, so that it becomes economically viable for farmers.
Other value-chain actors – notably brands - must pay farmers a premium to grow more sustainable crops for them. The premium should ensure that farmers are supported during the transition phase, until yields rise and become more stable.
Farmers need to be able to monetise the natural capital they have on their farmers through payments for eco-system services (PES).
Government policies are starting to help this – eg UK government schemes.
ESG requirements for companies could lead to further support.
Carbon markets are another opportunity for this.
Supply chain actors must support farmers to own their natural capital and be able to generate additional profit from it.
Lots of actors do want to contribute towards paying for PES and natural capital: construction companies building on the land, water companies and companies buying carbon-offsets.
There is potential to pass higher prices for regeneratively farmed products to the consumer – considering that there should eventually be no choice, as the regenerative transition is something that fundamentally needs to happen.
Lack of young farmers
There are potential young farmers from farming families, who are hard-working and passionate about issues, but other jobs are more attractive due to political and economic constraints.
Farmers cannot ensure the right price, or the right policies to support the regenerative transition at the farm level.
Value-chain actors need to share the cost, and support policies which enable farmer support.
There is a need for policymakers to anticipate the challenges ahead, and make sure that young farmers step into the sector.
Brands should work with farmers through a local partnership approach – eg Mondelēz’s harmony wheat programme.
There is a lack of consumer knowledge around regenerative farming – which means farmers aren’t valued enough, and products farmed regeneratively aren’t necessarily the first choice.
Customers choose products mainly based on quality and price – we need to understand how to communicate the added value that regenerative farming brings.
We should be aware of the danger of weaponising the term “conventional farming” and alienating hard-working farmers – this could deter them from a future transition.
Consumers should be engaged included in the regeneration narrative, so that they’re more likely to prioritise products and brands farming regeneratively.
Communications to consumers should be focused so that they can see the overall value that regenerative farming adds.
Regenerative farming needs to drive better taste and quality, and give consumers the feeling that it’s the right thing to buy.
There is a need to demonstrate through science that regeneratively farmed crops are better quality, so that brands can make quality claims.
Rob Shepherd, managing partner and chair, Allenford Farms and Environmental Farmers Group
Bram Van Hecke, president, Groene Kring
Jens Hartmann, head of EMEA region, Bayer Crop Science
Marie Ellul, well-being and sustainability senior manager, Mondelēz International
Natalie Smith, head of sustainable agriculture, Tesco
The webinar was moderated by Toby Webb, founder, Innovation Forum.
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