Unilever launches first UK regenerative agriculture project with British farmers

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Unilever's Colman's brand
Image: Unilever's Colman's brand

Related tags regenerative agriculture

The FMCG giant has launched its first regenerative agriculture project in the UK, working with farms that grow mustard seeds and mint leaves used in condiments brand Colman’s products.

This is the latest regenerative agriculture project from Unilever, building on global programmes that have seen the adoption of Unilever’s Regenerative Agriculture Principles​ to grow ingredients in Hellmann’s and Knorr products in the US, France, Spain, Argentina and Italy.

Globally, Unilever has a roadmap in place to invest in regenerative agriculture practices on 1.5 million hectares of land and forests by 2030, helping to ensure food security and supply chain resilience through the supply of agricultural raw materials.

Investments are funded via Unilever’s Climate & Nature Fund​ which was launched in 2020 and is a commitment to invest €1 billion by 2030 in “meaningful climate, nature, and resource efficiency projects, to transform the way our products are made and reach end of life”. 

Working with farms supplying Colman’s for 200 years

The UK project will initially trial the application of regenerative agriculture practices across mustard and mint farms around Norwich and Peterborough over four years, including mustard farms which have supplied Colman’s products for over 200 years, with the first crop of the programme due to be sown next month.

The project brings together Unilever and two farming cooperatives, the English Mustard Growers and Norfolk Mint Growers, with a group of technical and academic partners, Farmacy and National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB). Designed to address the unique challenges and needs of these crops and landscapes, regenerative agriculture practices new to these farms will be trialled including the use of low carbon fertiliser, crop nutrition strategies, planting of cover and companion crops to reduce pesticides use, new digital water irrigation scheduling systems and reduced cultivation.

Measuring success

Unilever has worked with the farms to collect and establish baseline data and created a framework to measure the impact these practices will have over four years, collecting data on soil health, fertiliser use, biodiversity, water use efficiency and carbon reductions as well as impact on yields and farm profitability. Unilever is also funding the development of new technologies to improve data collection on farms, including a device that will be able to measure carbon levels in soil in situ.

Andre Burger, head of nutrition, Unilever UK & Ireland, said, “Healthy soil should matter to all food businesses and as the climate crisis continues to impact the natural world, we need to not just protect but to help regenerate the soil and farmland used to grow the crops and ingredients we enjoy every day. Colman’s is a British condiment staple, and our new regenerative agriculture project will help to ensure the sustainable supply and future of the delicious ingredients and farms that put the big flavour into our products.”

Michael Sly, a mustard grower and chairman of the English Mustard Growers Co-operative, said, “As with all farmers, we are facing the challenges of climate change directly on our land. Alongside our English Mustard Growers Group, we’re on the journey with Unilever and NIAB to integrate regenerative agriculture practices that include strong measurement processes, to improve our yield, improve the soil health, and maintain the flavour of a fantastic product alongside that.”

Mint farmer David Bond added, “To increase our resilience and continue to produce high quality products, we need to work with our climate, which means adapting our practices. This new project with Unilever will enable us to implement regenerative agriculture practices on a wider scale, together with more measurement and analysis from our partnership with NIAB, so we can continue to learn and improve for the future.”

Defining regenerative agriculture

As a member of the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative (SAI) Platform​, last year Unilever joined forces with other FMCG companies and farmer cooperatives to support the development of SAI’s new Regenerating Together global framework, which has globally aligned regenerative agriculture practices with an understanding that measurable outcomes are needed for a resilient food supply chain.

Unilever adopts the following principles of regenerative agriculture:

  • Have positive impacts from agricultural practices on soil health, water and air quality, carbon capture and biodiversity
  • Enable local communities to protect and improve their environment and wellbeing
  • Produce crops with sufficient yield and nutritional quality to meet existing and future needs, while keeping resource inputs as low as possible.
  • Optimise the use of renewable resources while minimising the use of non-renewable resources.

According to Unilever, hundreds of suppliers and hundreds of thousands of farmers have been reached since it introduced the Sustainable Agriculture Code (SAC) in 2010, helping them to implement to its practices. The company said it remains committed to driving sustainable sourcing for key crops to 100% on the basis of SAC and will use regenerative agriculture principles to set up programmes with selected suppliers for key crops to explore ways for generating more positive impacts on soil health, biodiversity, farm profitability, water quality and climate resilience.

Unilever’s footprint in agriculture is dominated by perennial crops such as oil palm, forest, tea and cocoa. Applying regenerative principles to perennials clearly cannot focus on crop rotation, but still focuses on soil health, for example, composting and mulching as well as managing riparian and buffer zones for biodiversity, reducing carbon footprints, restoring pockets of forest within plantations, and supporting smallholder livelihoods.

Potential implementation challenges for Unilever’s regenerative agriculture initiatives

There are other challenges recognised by Unilever. Making farming regenerative requires changes to farm practices and management at a systems level. Soils respond to the type and diversity of crops that are grown on them and to the type and amount of nutrients that are added to them. Changes in farming systems will also need to be met with changes in market dynamics. Farmers respond to market signals. To help them move to longer and more diverse crop rotations, there has to be a market demand for each of those crops. Reduced carbon and water footprints associated with crops should also be rewarded by the market.

In the developed world, meanwhile, farmers struggle to make a return on investment and to cope with the impacts of climate change. So, they need support to understand the need for, and the benefits of, applying regenerative practices, including developing new income streams through e.g. payments for ecosystem services. Elsewhere, the problems are different. Smallholders, in particular, need support to organize themselves, get access to the necessary training and farm inputs, and to provide a living income for their families.

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