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COVID-19 exposes urgent need for regeneration, resilience in agriculture

Aerial view of inside a grocery store

When food companies want to set and meet sustainability targets, they must think about their supply chains — where the food comes from, how it was produced and the route it took to get to reach processing facilities and grocery store shelves.

It’s a rewarding but challenging feat. That's because for decades, the industrial agricultural system has glorified largely extractive practices, rather than the regenerative ones that have been regaining traction and favor among sustainable food systems advocates.

That was the subject of a recent GreenBiz Group webcast, during which panelists shared insights about an essential question: How can we evolve our food supply system to eliminate the practices we don’t want and get more of those that we do?

"I think for decades we’ve had great examples of smaller-scale responsible sustainable agriculture and as demand from consumers has just skyrocketed for sustainable food, we need mechanisms to scale," said Jamie Barsimantov, co-founder and COO at SupplyShift, during the webcast.

As demand from consumers has just skyrocketed for sustainable food, we need mechanisms to scale.

SupplyShift, which sells supply chain management and transparency software, is focused on helping companies figure out how to improve their supply chains at scale by using common tools and data to make processes work more efficiently and to disclose opportunities for continuous improvement.

Managing suppliers at scale is challenging for big companies because they’re often dealing with a lot of brands in different parts of the world, Barsimantov said.

Here’s how SupplyShift is working to fill that gap: On the platform, companies — from one end of the supply chain to the other — can create a profile and connect with other businesses that it works with by becoming a part of their supply chain network. From there, those organizations can all request and share data with one another, and potentially help one another reach their sustainability goals.

How one company is harnessing its supply chain

General Mills, which has over 100 consumer brands ranging from Cheerios cereal to Gold Medal flour, has been digging its heels into regenerative agriculture practices and working with members of its supply chain — namely its farmers — to help reach its science-based target of reducing absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent across its value chain by 2025. The food company plans to advance regenerative practices on at least 1 million acres of land by 2030.

Over half of the company’s carbon footprint and "transformation of usable ingredients" and 82 percent of its water footprint lie in its agricultural supply chain, making it a good place to seek improvements.

"We’re advancing these activities but we’re about outcomes," said Jeff Hanratty, sustainability manager at General Mills during the webcast.

He said the company is going after four outcomes — increasing economic resiliency, improving soil health, bettering water outcomes and improving above-ground biodiversity.

Hanratty said General Mills is connecting farmers in its supply chain to experts who can help them adjust their practices to achieve these outcomes. Because the company is one of the largest oat purchasers in the food industry, it started two pilots with farmers who grow that commodity. Then it decided to work with farmers who grow wheat.

In both instances, Hanratty said the farmers are working to figure out what they can do differently while General Mills is figuring out the most economical ways those operations can measure their impact as they scale their regenerative farming efforts.

[The pandemic is] reinforcing the need for companies to show that solving climate change is imperative for building a healthier, stronger and more resilient future.

But is working on your own supply chain enough?

The COVID-19 pandemic has shined a light on the complexity and vulnerabilities of food supply chains, which play a role in deforestation, according to one of the subject matter experts.

"[The pandemic is] reinforcing the need for companies to show that solving climate change is imperative for building a healthier, stronger and more resilient future," said Katie Anderson, senior manager for resilient food and forests at the Environmental Defense Fund, during the webcast.

Anderson said companies should begin to take a jurisdictional approach in which they engage with local governments and other stakeholders to increase productivity and reduce deforestation over an entire region, not just within a single supply chain.

"As business leaders like you are preparing for the post-pandemic world, it’s going to be even more critical to show bold leadership and drive down climate pollution while increasing supply chain resilience," she said.

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