Regenerative agriculture is about more than just sustainability

money growing on coffee trees
  • Regenerative agriculture is gaining traction in the coffee industry
  • There are almost 150 Regenerative Organic certified brands worldwide, including many coffee companies
  • But beyond environmental sustainability, there may be other reasons why businesses are investing

MORE THAN a sustainability buzzword, regenerative agriculture is a transformative agricultural approach that can offer environmental sustainability to coffee production. 

But the amount of investment and attention it’s received from large multinationals as well as more niche specialty coffee brands makes it a clear asset for business growth – begging the question why.

As we face a climate crisis, environmental due diligence is becoming unavoidable for coffee businesses as practices come under scrutiny and sustainable practices become vital. 

Regenerative agriculture is gaining traction as it recognises the value of regenerative practices for long-term sustainability and resilience. The word itself offers the promise of a nature that can regenerate – a phoenix rising from the ashes of an environmental catastrophe. 

By offering a concrete value proposition, it cuts through the noise of a sea of other sustainability standards that have more abstract names, like B Corp, 4C, or C.A.F.E Practices, for example. Like the organic label, it also gives the impression of being values-driven as opposed to corporate-owned.  

Meanwhile, big players like Nespresso, Starbucks, Illy, and Lavazza are starting to actively support regenerative agriculture initiatives, signalling a sector-wide shift toward more holistic farming practices. These companies recently started to invest in regenerative agriculture and have released formal commitments to supporting its development. 

The fairly new certification programme by the Regenerative Organic Alliance, Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) has solidified and formalised this shift. To date, there are almost 150 ROC-certified brands worldwide, including coffee companies like Sucafina, Sustainable Harvest, Belco and Salt Spring Coffee – amongst others. Other organisations like Rainforest Alliance are also integrating the concept of regenerative agriculture into their certification and “beyond certification” programmes. 

Regenerative agriculture is rapidly becoming a catch-all concept  

Regenerative agriculture focuses on improving soil health, which has been degraded by the use of heavy machinery, fertilisers and pesticides in intensive farming. 

“One of the guiding principles of regenerative is soil health,” says Mickey McLeod, Co-Founder of Salt Spring Coffee. “This means measuring and analysing the soil. This can be a challenge with coffee farmers, as they need to get their soil officially tested in labs.” 

But the sustainable agriculture approach remains difficult to define, and appears to be an umbrella term covering a range of agronomic practices, from cover crops and minimum tillage to rotational grazing and biological nutrient cycle integration. It aims at a minimum to reverse biodiversity loss and restore soil health, and to increase soil carbon-capture capacity as a tool to mitigate climate change.  

Advocates of regenerative agriculture assert that it maintains or even increases farm productivity, and that it can improve farmers’ incomes and resilience. 

“Decreasing chemical or costly input use is a great way to help coffee farmers achieve a better income,” says Ricardo Pereira, Chief Business Development Officer at Purity Coffee

“Regenerative agriculture offers more sustainable inputs, such as biochar, for example, which farmers can actually manufacture themselves. Studies have found that when producers use biochar, they use 20 percent fewer inputs, a huge saving in the cost of production. They also produce 20 to 30 percent more coffee.”

That said consensus on productivity impacts from regenerative agriculture remains unclear, according to a recent study. Despite this, agricultural research institutions, non-governmental organisations and private companies are channelling resources into advancing regenerative agriculture. 

They are investing in research and development to build and promote regenerative agriculture technologies and practices tailored to the needs of coffee farmers. This includes research on soil health, agroforestry systems, climate-smart agriculture, and biodiversity conservation.

Beyond contributing to food system transformation and climate change mitigation, the potential corporate benefits of regenerative agriculture are meeting evolving consumer demands and market trends. 

But with so many multinationals and industry stakeholders on board with this new concept, it seems hard to believe that these are the only motives to justify such a sector-wide shift and such large investments and commitments at scale. 

Business comes first

Regenerative agriculture isn’t just a moral imperative – it’s a smart business move. 

The surge in consumer demand for sustainably produced coffee has played no small part in convincing large and small companies to invest in regenerative agriculture. Multinationals like Nestlé, Walmart, and Target are leading the charge, recognising the potential for market growth and enhanced brand reputation.

“Large companies now have scientists and specialists doing research. They see that regenerative agriculture is the future for sustainable coffee growing,” says Ricardo.

Brands already embracing regenerative agriculture are reaping the rewards and seeing significant investment returns. 

“Purity Coffee is a relatively small company, and when it started seven years ago, it wanted to provide end-consumers with healthier coffee – working with organic farmers and farmers who were already doing regenerative agriculture practices,” says Ricardo. 

“Today, we have 25,000 subscribers. Consumers not only understand that it’s a healthy coffee for them to drink, but also that the impact at farm level is more harmonious.” 

But beyond consumer demand and environmental awareness, there could be another enticing asset that is motivating companies to sign up so enthusiastically for regenerative agriculture.

The catch-all nature of regenerative agriculture means that even some large food companies with science-based sustainability strategies do not have quantified company-wide targets related to regenerative farming practices. Loosely defined indicators make it easier to manipulate monitoring and evaluation findings. 

A study of 79 publicly listed agri-food companies – including Walmart, Pepsico and McDonald’s – revealed that there is a lack of transparency around company ambitions, the agricultural practices being pursued, the scale of commitments and how success is measured. According to the study, “regenerative agriculture is taking centre stage as a silver bullet for climate adaptation and resilience, yet there is no silver bullet for succeeding with it.”

Regenerative agriculture, done well, has great transformative potential – both in terms of climate change adaptation and mitigation. It can also help ensure the sustainability of the coffee industry and foster a sense of responsibility and community among stakeholders. 

While the term was coined in the 1980s and its practices go back thousands of years before that, the concept of it as a sustainability standard is still relatively new. 

The drawback of that, combined with its wide scope, is that it contains many loopholes and ambiguities that could be exploited for the wrong reasons. The perceived success of regenerative agriculture at scale will depend on how it is measured, rather than its effectiveness.

Coffee Intelligence

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