For the past ten years, we have been investing in sustainable agriculture to support our suppliers in adopting good practices. We have achieved tremendous progress but to really stop soil decline, preserve water resources, protect biodiversity, increase climate resilience and improve livelihoods, we know we need to do more.
As Dave Ingram, Unilever’s Chief Procurement Officer, says: “The ingredients for most Unilever products come from nature, so the future of our business is inextricably linked to the preservation and regeneration of natural environments. Initiatives like this do more than just benefit the planet. To be considered successful, they should also benefit and improve the livelihoods of our farmers, their families and surrounding communities, creating a cycle of prosperity on our journey to make sustainable living commonplace.”
Regenerative agriculture: taking things to a whole new level
In 2010, we introduced our Sustainable Agriculture Code, which has been the North Star for our sustainable sourcing programme and an important guide to sustainable farming for hundreds of thousands of suppliers, smallholders and farmers.
Building on that as a foundation, we are now adding a new layer of practices that aim to work with nature to regenerate it. Our Regenerative Agriculture Principles outlines the five priority areas we believe are in most urgent need of action and where we can achieve the biggest impact.
It takes between 100 and 400 years to generate just 1cm of fresh, healthy soil because soil is slow to renew and requires certain conditions to thrive. Active soil management is critical to increasing productivity and resilience, and lowering emissions. We’re going to help farmers regenerate soil by supporting methods including keeping living roots in the ground, applying tillage practices that minimise disturbance to the soil surface and preventing erosion through cover cropping.
Some 80% of the planet’s freshwater is used to produce crops and rear livestock. But temperatures are increasing globally, rainfall is unreliable, there are frequent floods and the demands for water are often in conflict. So farmers must adapt by using the resource more efficiently, managing irrigation and drainage better, and minimising water pollution. We will help farmers protect waterways from erosion and runoff, and select the most efficient irrigation technology and strategies.
Natural ecosystems – which we need to support climate stability, water supplies, soil structure, and pest and disease control – have declined by an average of 47% in the last decade and continue to degrade at an unprecedented rate. Farmers are uniquely placed to help slow this decline, so we will support their efforts in various ways. These include creating conditions that increase plant and animal numbers, and habitats for insects that control pests.
Developing climate solutions
As deforestation contributes to around 15% of global warming and farming is responsible for 24% of all greenhouse gases, addressing emissions from land use is critical. It’s estimated that 37% of the cost-effective emissions reductions the world needs by 2030 can come from natural climate solutions. We’ll keep carbon on the ground through avoiding conversion and by planting trees for different purposes such as timber, shade and animal feed.
Improving farmer livelihoods
The world’s 500 million smallholder farmers face many challenges including limited training and lack of access to capital and technology. This leaves them vulnerable to poverty, hunger and the impacts of climate change. We will help improve their livelihoods through providing access to skills training, finance and markets, as well as supporting income diversification and women’s economic empowerment.
Putting the theory into action
To achieve the scale and pace of change we need to see, we will work with farmers, suppliers and partners on programmes across different geographies. We’ll prioritise our key crops – which include dairy, vegetables, grains, palm oil, soy, paper and board, coconut, cocoa and tea – because of their impact on land and their contribution to our greenhouse gas or human footprint. Here are just a few examples of programmes already underway.
From ‘do less harm’ to ‘do more good’
We will continue to advocate for and lead the transformation of global supply chains towards more sustainable and regenerative models. This requires businesses like ours to work with governments and civil society to achieve sustainable development and make sustainable living commonplace.
As Hanneke Faber, President of our Foods & Refreshment division, says: “It is not enough for us to do less harm. We’re now seeking out opportunities to do more good. With our scale and influence, we have a crucial role to play in leading the systemic change our planet is crying out for.”