Josh Sosland, PortraitJosh Sosland, editor of
Milling & Baking News.
KANSAS CITY Leading food and food processing companies embarking on a path to reduce or even eliminate carbon emissions by 2050 increasingly are focusing on regenerative agriculture (RA) as a priority to achieving those objectives. Finding ways to ensure wheat and other feedstock are produced using RA practices is viewed as key to reducing Scope 3 emissions — emissions not produced by the companies themselves but generated up and down the value chain.

As more grain-based foods companies embrace RA and other sustainability initiatives, it’s important for industry executives to be mindful of how these actions fit within a key larger objective — a dramatic reduction in emissions with the goal of holding the overall increase in global average temperatures well under 2° Celsius, striving to keep the increase to 1.5°. Flour-based foods companies have particular cause to stay attuned to these efforts.

While an important piece of the drive toward net zero embraced by more and more companies, RA is eclipsed by other so-called natural climate solutions (NCS).

“Nature and Net Zero,” a 2021 study produced by the World Economic Forum in consultation with McKinsey and Company, concluded that NCS have the “practical” abatement potential of 6.7 gigatons (Gt) of carbon-dioxide (CO₂) by 2030. Breaking down the sources of this abatement, the study said four NCS types would be important — avoided deforestation and peatland impact, peatland restoration, reforestation and cover crops (a primary RA practice).

Of the 6.7 Gt of annual abatement globally, the analysis estimated cover crops will provide only 0.5 Gt (7.5%), with another 0.3 Gt from the planting of trees in cropland. Avoided deforestation and peatland impact would account for 3.6 Gt, nearly half of the “practical” total with another 1 Gt each possible from reforestation and peatland restoration.

While it makes sense for grain-based foods companies to focus on RA/cover crops, the larger NCS types are of interest as well. A short list of companies pursuing NCS projects shared in “Nature and Net Zero” included leading consumer packaged goods companies Nestle, Unilever and PepsiCo.

The analysis noted NCS are typically low-cost sources of carbon abatement. The study estimated costs between $10 and $40 per ton of CO₂, with the spread reflecting geographic and project type variations.

Regenerative agriculture has many benefits for its own sake, including enhanced soil health and increased biodiversity. Still, from the perspective of mitigating climate change, RA without the other key NCS would be an exercise in futility.

Ahead of the COP27 conference held Nov. 6-18, the World Economic Forum released a letter from 100 global corporate executives calling for governments to partner with the private sector so emissions reduction progresses more quickly. The group noted emissions under current policies are projected to reach 58 Gt CO₂ in 2030, 2 Gt lower than the baseline forecast in 2019, but still 25 Gt higher than what is necessary to limit warming to 1.5° Celsius. 

The executives called on governments to take several steps, including following through on earlier commitments, developing innovative sustainable finance mechanisms, simplifying regulations, providing incentives or abatement and putting a price on carbon. To date, government action has been limited. Despite what the World Economic Forum described as “their vast potential for reducing emissions, natural climate solutions attract very little public investment.”

Importantly, the group also called for regulating bodies, including the Securities and Exchange Commission and the European Commission, to help achieve globally aligned standards to “accurately measure and compare progress against ambitious targets.”  

Progress against NCS objectives would bring into focus which foods allow more efficient use of arable land and which are less efficient. It’s worth noting that about 70% of arable land at present is dedicated to animal agriculture, a sector frequently singled out as a climate change contributor. Wheat-based foods, measured against land use, feed the world far more efficiently. From many perspectives, the grain-based foods sector has a keen interest in how NCS advance.