High Stakes Promises of Sustainable, Regenerative Agriculture

High Stakes Promises of Sustainable, Regenerative Agriculture

This week marks the beginning of North Carolina ‘s potato harvest. Much of the crop will be shipped to Canada McCain Foods, which has just informed its supply chain network, and the general public, that by 2030 it will only purchase potatoes from farms using sustainable practices. McCain’s, the world’s largest producer of French fries, is based in New Brunswick in eastern Canada. The company statement said that it wants its farmers to concentrate on sustainable, or ‘regenerative’ agricultural practices.

Sylvain Charlebois of the Agri-food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University says McCain’s announcement sounds much like those by large food companies including PepsiCo, Nestles, and General Mills, which have committed to specific supply chain initiatives.

Charlebois says this all sounds good to consumers, but regenerative agriculture includes some very specific practices, and some of those will pose major challenges for potato production operations.

“I think what McCain’s is trying to do is invite farmers to become more efficient and there’s nothing wrong with that. But how can you possibly do no-till in potato growing? You can’t. You may actually compromise yields, you may actually compromise the profitability of many farms. That’s why I think a lot of work needs to be done here, in terms of what this actually means.”

Charlebois says the company’s long-term commitment may not reflect the real world of agricultural challenges.

“The company commits to farming techniques which promotes diversity, practices which minimizes soil disturbance – that’s a big one for potato growing, by the way. And maximize crop diversity to increase water efficiency – that’s another big one. In some areas water scarcity is a big issue. You have to protect against erosion, capture more carbon. These practices are based on specific principles, and this is where things get a little bit muddy.”

The United Nations is having a summit-meeting later this summer and sustainable agriculture is on the agenda. Charlebois believes that UN Summit is the impetus for these commitments by large agribusiness companies.

“It’s looking at the United Nation’s sustainable goals. And the ag-industry will be asked to come up with some solutions over the next nine years, because they have set targets for 2030. We’ve seen PepsiCo commit, we’ve seen General Mills. McCain’s just did the same thing.” 

In the age of instant information access and instant recall, Charlebois says that companies should be careful in making big promises as there have been too many failures to deliver, and consumers have become far more sensitive to food system transparency.

“Consumers are becoming less patient about some of these announcements made by companies, only to fail to fulfil some of the goals that they’ve set out for themselves.”