‘Regenerative farming practices can help restore the earth’: PepsiCo discusses its Positive Agriculture Programme

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

PepsiCo sets out ambitious agricultural agenda / Pic: Getty-JoaBal
PepsiCo sets out ambitious agricultural agenda / Pic: Getty-JoaBal

Related tags regenerative agriculture Pepsico

By 2030, PepsiCo wants to have spread regenerative farming practices to 7m acres of cultivated land, the equivalent of its entire agricultural footprint. FoodNavigator hears from David Wilkinson, Senior Director of European Agriculture for PepsiCo Europe, to learn more.

PepsiCo has launched an 'impact-driven’ Positive Agriculture ambition, anchored by a 2030 goal to spread regenerative farming practices across 7 million acres. The company estimates the effort will eliminate at least 3m tons of greenhouse gas emissions by the end of the decade.

Additional 2030 goals within the agenda include improving the livelihoods of more than 250,000 people in its agricultural supply chain and ‘sustainably sourcing’ 100% of its key ingredients.

‘We cannot continue farming in the same way’

David Wilkinson, who is Senior Director of European Agriculture for PepsiCo Europe, works across markets including the EU, UK, Russia and Turkey.

“Agriculture is the foundation of the food system and many of our products begin life in fields and farms across Europe,”​ he told FoodNavigator. “But we’re facing up to a reality. We cannot continue to farm in the same way as in the past. Our soil is degrading and agriculture is a significant contributor to climate change.”

According to the FAO, agriculture, forestry and other land-use accounts for 24% of GHG emissions globally. And according to the organisation, one soccer pitch of soil is eroded every five seconds. If we don’t act now, over 90% of the world’s soils could be degraded by 2050.

GettyImages-sarayut desert water soil
Building healthy soils is a core priority / Pic: GettyImages-sarayut

PepsiCo agrees that urgent action is required. Wilkinson stressed that while today’s agricultural systems are contributing to these problems, if we reinvent agricultural models, food production can actually offer solutions.

“Regenerative farming practices can help restore the earth. I’ve been working alongside some inspirational farmers in Europe for well over a decade and I’ve seen first-hand the potential regenerative agriculture can have to improve the quality of soil and farmer yields.

“There are great practices happening already in many farms across Europe but we need to accelerate adoption and take more of a systematic approach to sharing learnings and tools.”

Defining ‘regenerative agriculture’

Regenerative agriculture is a term increasingly being used by the food sector. Typically, it incorporates practices like cover cropping, no till methods, crop rotation, mixed farming, and, increasingly, the use of smart technologies to improve efficiency.

In its grandest sense, regenerative agriculture can be used to take carbon out of the atmosphere and return it to the soil. Over a longer timeframe, this delivers results not only in terms of cutting CO2 but also improves soil health and productivity, with the potential to reduce reliance on chemical fertilisers.

But – while a broad understanding of different practices that contribute to regeneration is developing – there is not an industry standard defining exactly what is meant when companies refer to regenerative agriculture.

Wilkinson said PepsiCo is supportive of a clearer definition of what regenerative agriculture means. But he also stressed that the company is eager to act now – rather than waiting for a consensus to be developed.

“We fully support the development of industry-wide standards and measurements and we are working with leading organisations to help establish these. Without an industry standard, it will be difficult for regenerative agriculture practices to be adopted at scale in Europe.

“However, while industry standards will make it easier, we shouldn’t wait. In the EU alone, 13 countries have already declared themselves as impacted by soil degradation so we need to accelerate our work on this. We’ve set our goals to have an impact by 2030 – that’s only nine harvests away so it’s important to focus on what we know works.

“One thing that gives me hope for the future is that we are seeing lots of companies step up with transparent action plans focused on agriculture and supporting farmers, which is really encouraging. It’s going to take all of us. Companies have different targets and approaches, but we know with our scale, reach, and existing partnerships with farmers, our Positive Agriculture goals will have meaningful impact.”

Growing more, using less: Data will be an enabler

As PepsiCo works with the farmers that supply it to encourage uptake of regenerative practices, Wilkinson explained he believes data will be a key enabler.

“We will be tracking the acres and farmers engaged in our programmes. For me, data will be a cornerstone of our success for all we do, helping us to measure progress and enabling decision making so we can prioritise actions that have the best impact.”

GettyImages-lamyai digitalisation field food tech
Ag tech is supporting regenerative agriculture / Pic: GettyImages-lamyai

To unlock the power of data, PepsiCo has been investing in prediction agricultural technologies, ‘harnessing the power of data and crop insights’. One such example is iCrop technology that is deployed in the potato fields that supply the snack maker’s potato chip business. This ‘helps us measure and understand how we can grow more, using less’, Wilkinson explained.

“One area we would like to improve is how we can integrate data from a variety of different sources, including GPS on tractors to satellite technology. The more data we have, the more we can understand the impact and share with our farmers,​” he continued.

The company is also exploring other management tools, such as soil probes. “But these need to be deployed in a way that is practicable and workable for farmers,”​ the agricultural sourcing expert added.

Again, Wilkinson highlighted the importance of collaboration as the company works to track its impact: “Partnership and collaboration will also be critical to help crack the code on how we can track the positive impacts we are making. There are lots of bright minds working in this space and we’re keen to work with partners who can help us quantify the data and help us understand the measurable progress being made.”

‘Active’ chemicals management

The use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers has an impact on both soil health and biodiversity. Managing use is an important aspect of any regenerative strategy.

But the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers is a nuanced topic – with many in the agricultural sector highlighting their necessity to control pests and protect yields.

“PepsiCo takes an active approach to pesticide management that considers the societal concerns, evolving regulations, and potential business impacts. We’ve established a Global Pesticide Council to monitor and evaluate pesticide issues and drive our policies and programs to ensure global compliance and minimise pesticide-related risks,”​ Wilkinson told us.

GettyImages-fotokostic farm pesticide spraying
Pic: GettyImages-fotokostic

“We are also constantly innovating to find new ways to minimise chemical fertiliser use. Our Walkers brand in the UK recently introduced its new ‘circular potatoes’ technology that uses waste potato peelings from the manufacturing site in Leicester to produce a new nutrient rich, low carbon fertiliser which is expected to reduce Walkers’ emissions from growing potatoes by 70%. It will be trialled with UK farmers in 2021 and is expected to roll out across Lay’s potato crops in Europe from 2022.”

Again, Wilkinson stressed, the adoption of ag tech and use of big data is expected to have a positive impact. “Technology will play a crucial role. Blight still remains a challenge for potato crops across Europe and so naturally farmers want to be protected from that. We’ve added a late blight monitor alert to our iCrop technology, which was developed in partnership with the University of Wageningen, and is helping farmers to reduce chemical application.

“Finally, once out of the ground we store our potatoes over winter with farmers. To stop them from sprouting we’re exploring how temperature reduction can be effectively used in storage so that we need less chemicals.”

Water stewardship becoming ‘ever more critical’

Water management is another issue high up PepsiCo’s agenda as it works to build a more sustainable agricultural supply chain. This, Wilkinson said, reflects the impact that climate change has already had, increasing water risk.

“Farmers in Europe have had to deal with both floods and droughts and so water management is increasingly becoming a challenge. We have some high-water risk areas in this region and target programmes there as a priority – not just from an agriculture perspective but also through our manufacturing and in community support.

“Water is such a precious resource and farmers understand that and want to find ways to conserve it, particularly given its cost.”

Pic@ iStock

Here, again, developments in the ag-tech sector can be leveraged to improve water management and PepsiCo’s iCrop tool is being deployed to help farmers improve water management.

“Irrigating fields at the right time and to the right extent is a difficult job which has traditionally been down to gut feeling. Using precision agriculture technology replaces gut feel with data, giving farmers and growers early warning about irrigation requirements so they can start watering the fields at the right time.

“This is particularly beneficial in water-stressed regions where the management of water is becoming ever more critical. The tool becomes a way of life for farmers and helps them to make in-season decisions. For example, in field trials in Spain, our iCrop precision agri technology has improved water accuracy from 48% to 93%.”

Improving livelihoods in the supply chain

Alongside its ambition to support regenerative agriculture, the Positive Agriculture scheme also includes targets around improving farmer incomes in its agricultural supply chain.

PepsiCo has said it wants to boost the livelihoods of more than 250,000 people in its agricultural supply chain, including economically empowering women. The focus will be on the ‘most vulnerable farming communities’ in its global value chain.

This does include some of the countries in Wilkinson’s remit. In markets such as Russia, Turkey, the Ukraine and Romania, PepsiCo is working to create financial inclusion for potato growers by providing revenue streams and pre-payments so they have funding to buy fertilisers and seeds.

“Through this, we want to improve farmer livelihoods, particularly for the most vulnerable farming communities in Europe. This includes smallholder farmers, farm workers, women and minority farmers,”​ Wilkinson elaborated.

100% ‘sustainable’ sourcing

The third area that PepsiCo’s Positive Agriculture Programme is targeting is sustainable sourcing.

The company has said that it wants to sustainably source 100% of its ‘key ingredients’ by 2030, expanding to include not only its direct-sourced crops (potatoes, whole corn, oats, and oranges), but also key crops from third parties, such as vegetable oils and grains.

“Farmers are at the heart of all of our Positive Agriculture ambitions. We need to celebrate the positive work they are already doing and encourage, inspire and demonstrate that great work through our farmer network to increase adoption of sustainable practices,” ​Wilkinson told this publication.

“We’ve made strong progress on sustainable sourcing of directly sourced crops to date and now want to bring some of those learnings to our indirect crops sourced through suppliers of our ingredients.”

Already in Europe this work is underway. In Hungary, the Ukraine and Russia, PepsiCo is launching collaborative programmes with suppliers to further develop sustainable sourcing practices for its sunflower oil. “These trials will look to improve yields, reduce inputs, improve soil health and provide a more productive crop, therefore minimising the impact on the environment,”​ Wilkinson observed.

“Growing in a sustainable way using regenerative practices will be the only way we will grow crops in the future.”

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