A Food Processor’s View…


Written by Rebecca Hesketh, Agriculture Manager for Fresh Produce at Waitrose & Partners

Many of us are asking whether this point in history is one we will look back on as when a ‘shift’ occurred in our system that changed the course of lives and the agricultural industry. There are many aspects of the agricultural world that may feel like they are on shifting sands at the moment, but the opportunity that presents itself through regenerative agriculture may just have some of the answers we need when facing the challenges ahead of this industry.

Whilst regenerative agriculture may feel familiar to many of the readers of Direct Driller Magazine whom I’m sure have long been farming with soil health in mind, we have found it helpful to further define what this means to us, drawing upon the number of definitions out there at the moment. To us, regenerative agriculture is a system of farming that increases biodiversity and enriches soils, therefore improving water quality, enhancing ecosystem services and capturing carbon in the soil. This definition allows us to bring this concept to life within our business and supply chains, to set ambitions and to build a plan to achieve them. There are many different ways we would look to work with our farmers to put this into practice on farm, but whatever we ask our farmers to do, it is important to us to ensure it’s meaningful and relevant to their farming business. There is no one size fits all! One area of focus will be building the health of our soils, which may be achieved through practices such as using cover crops and minimising soil disturbance. Importantly, through the practical application of regenerative agriculture through practices such as these, the benefits are seen not only in the improvement of our soil, but also in the quality of our water, the health of our surrounding ecosystems and just quite possibly the wider planet’s health too.

It is this that particularly draws us to regenerative agriculture, a movement that was built upon the foundations of conservation agriculture and has grown up from the grassroots movement started by the Rodale Institute and the revered Gabe Brown’s of this world. Through the lens of regenerative agriculture, healthy soil is seen as not a happy by-product in a supply chain, but as a core part of what farming achieves alongside the supply of food and a healthy ecosystem with thriving biodiversity. Seeing those vital parts of farming as just as important as what is produced to be sold. It can be best explained as a holistic framework through which to view farming and food supply in the future with the dual purpose of producing food that is both good for us and also the environment, doing more than just maintaining the current state of our planet, but enhancing it. Surely regeneration feels like the right path for us to be taking in a post-lockdown world with the looming challenges of the climate and biodiversity crises ahead.

These challenges require our system to evolve. The UN warns that we only have until the end of this decade to act against the climate crisis. The World Economic Forum warns that ‘biodiversity is declining globally, faster than at any other time in human history.’ Alongside this soil degradation is rightly causing concern to many, with recent studies finding that 16% of the conventionally managed soils looked at in the research had lifespans of less than a century. This gloomy picture has led influential thinkers within the business and agriculture communities to state that all businesses in the future will need to become regenerative. The key in this is ALL businesses – from the farmer to the retailer – we all need to be part of this progression towards becoming regenerative and to work as partners to make changes. This is why we want to start a conversation with our growers about the future of regenerative agriculture on our farms. 

We at Waitrose have long worked closely with our suppliers and our growers to create finely tuned supply chains in order to make sure that food can arrive safely onto our customer’s plates. Over these past twelve months, we have seen an incredible amount of pressure applied to our carefully constructed supply chains. When you consider the possibility that the world may become yet more volatile and uncertain with the impact of environmental degradation and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, it is difficult not to argue for an even stronger system of supply for the future.

This is one of the areas where regenerative agriculture offers potential for our food system. A healthy soil can be more resilient to environmental shocks, protecting this asset and its yield capacity for years to come, whilst thriving biodiversity on farm provides a wealth of ecosystem services. Underpinning our food supply with healthy, regenerating natural resources ensures a reliable base for food production for the future, benefitting a whole supply system on which it is based. Therefore we must work together to realise these benefits. Working in partnership with our farmers and the wider agriculture system is a key part of the way we work at Waitrose and Partners. T

he vast majority of our growers have been supplying Waitrose for multiple years and, through our suppliers, work in partnership with us to face the challenges ahead. Waitrose was founded over 100 years ago and in 100 years time we still want to be providing healthy food from flourishing farms. This is why as part of our Waitrose Agriculture Strategy we intend to embrace regenerative agriculture and play our part in regenerating the natural resources on which we rely. Through sequestering carbon into the soil and keeping it there, we are sure that regenerative agriculture will also play a key role in helping us to achieve our target of net zero across our UK farming base by 2035.

We recognise the important role that knowledge plays in bringing regenerative agriculture to life and this is why alongside these ambitions, we will aim to lead by example on our own farm, the Leckford Estate, innovating, learning and sharing new ways of farming. Alongside this we will continue to strengthen the partnerships we have built with organisations such as LEAF and Innovative Farmers. These partners work closely with us and our farmers to help us to farm with nature. They help us to ensure the right environmental approaches are in place on farm and bring agricultural research to life practically.

Customers are at the heart of every decision we make at Waitrose and the consideration of regenerative agriculture is no exception. The UK has seen an exponential growth in spending on ethically sourced goods over the past two decades, with figures showing spending by consumers on sustainable products reached £29.7bn in 2018, up from £3.1bn in 1999. It is arguable that the last year will have accelerated this trend. Alongside this, the presence of documentaries such as the inspirational Kiss the Ground on the popular streaming site Netflix demonstrates our customers’ interest in farming to regenerate. This is an opportunity to show farming can be a positive force in the action against environmental crises. Over in the US, regenerative agriculture has been taken up by household names, including Wallmart and General Mills, both of whom have made commitments to advance regenerative agriculture where they farm. Clearly these companies, their farmers and their customers see the benefits of a regenerative system.

Our customers make it clear to us that they want us to act in the face of the climate crisis and those crises facing the natural world. Regenerative agriculture could be the solution we need, offering a stronger system through which to supply food, whilst acting to mitigate climate change, biodiversity loss and soil degradation. As a business with customers at its heart and a mission to ‘do the right thing’, applying regenerative thinking to the way we work feels like the right path to take for a responsible business that cares about our planet. This is a path that requires the support of the whole supply chain to make it a success, from the farmer to the retailer and all the businesses both between and around them. To me it’s clear that this step is in all of our best interests to take and it might just be in our planet’s best interest too.

As a retailer that prides itself on working together with our suppliers, we welcome your thoughts on regenerative agriculture and would love for you to get in touch to share your views. You can contact me via LinkedIn.