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Regenerative Agriculture within the Cereals Supply Chain

Regenerative Agriculture is gaining traction across a wide range of industries. It is a movement that seeks to reverse the climate emergency, heal natural systems, and strengthen human society while producing an abundance of food and materials for a growing population. By pivoting away from conventional farming practices that degrade soil and damage biodiversity, regenerative farmers sequester carbon in healthy soil, improve water security, protect biodiversity, and all ​​whilst increasing the nutrient density of their crops. 

What was once seen as a somewhat unorthodox approach to farming is becoming increasingly embraced as a crucial tool to decarbonise agriculture and secure a climate-positive future.  Heineken and Guinness are amongst the best-known brewing companies investing in regenerative agriculture, with a view to secure cereal supply chains and reduce their scope three emissions.  But they aren’t the only names leaving the old paradigm behind. Across the UK, breweries big and small are partnering with farmers to decarbonise cereal production and build resilience into barley supply chains. 

Decarbonising beer

Changing the way we grow cereals can make a significant contribution toward decarbonising the UK’s food system. After all, the top metre of the world’s soil contains three times more carbon than the atmosphere does (European Journal of Soil Science). However, much of that carbon is being released as carbon dioxide due to conventional farming practices which overlook soil health in the pursuit of cheap commodities. Since 1940, 70% of UK arable soils have lost nearly half of their soil organic carbon (Royal Agricultural Society of England), which is one significant reason why 30% of all greenhouse emissions can be traced back to the food system (UN). When farmed regeneratively, the soil is a vast natural sink that can sequester over a billion additional tons of carbon each year. (MIT)

Regenerative Agriculture can refer to a wide range of practices. But the focus is on improving soil health. This is achieved while sequestering carbon by increasing soil organic matter, protecting farmland from erosion, and reducing disturbance of the soil. Common practices such as minimising tilling, reducing synthetic inputs like pesticides, and incorporating cover crops all help increase soil organic carbon, essential for soil health and climate stability. 

Back in 2004, the international malt manufacturer Muntons developed methods to calculate the carbon footprint of malt. The data showed that over 60% of the total carbon footprint from malt production comes from growing barley. Muntons were boycotted by some stakeholders in the supply chain because of this research. But the data opened the door to change. Since then, Muntons required their barley suppliers to use an abated nitrogen fertiliser, which led to a 30% reduction in their barley carbon footprint in less than a decade. (Royal Agricultural Society of England). 

“Muntons developed the world’s first carbon calculator for malting barley which revealed a significant contribution from nitrous oxide emissions from soil. Our company strapline in this field is Practical Sustainability which in this case promoted a collaborative approach to work with farmers, fertiliser manufacturers, soil scientists and water authorities to generate real benefits in emissions reductions and resource use efficiency across the supply chain.”

Dr Nigel Davies, Munton’s Director of Technical and Sustainability

It can be more difficult for smaller breweries to conduct research about decarbonising their cereal supply chain. But when carbon footprints are calculated, barley growing consistently ranks as the most significant source of scope three emissions. Simple methods like switching fertilisers can help reduce the overall carbon footprint. But regenerative practices can take farms far past reducing emissions, making cereal production carbon negative in the most successful of cases.  As well as sequestering carbon, regenerative cereal production helps secure supply chains in the face of a changing climate and provides a wide range of ecosystem benefits. 

Healthy soil

Healthy soil acts like a sponge, absorbing water in times of heavy rainfall and holding on to it for times of drought. Degraded soil does not absorb water in the same way. Instead, rainfall evaporates off before it can penetrate the soil, or runs off compacted farmland to accumulate in flood zones. As extreme weather events become increasingly common throughout the 21st century, healthy soil that can respond to climate shocks is the difference between barley in the supply chains or a failed harvest.  After all, if we were to stop all greenhouse emissions today, we would continue to see the worsening impacts of climate change due to the legacy load of carbon dioxide that has already built up in the atmosphere. Decarbonising cereal production in the UK is not optional. It’s an essential tool to reverse climate change in the long run and secure supply chains in the short term.

What we do

Soil Heroes connects companies that have strong social and environmental values with farmers who want to transition to regenerative practices. Wherever possible, we make these connections within the company’s own supply chains, a concept known as “insetting.” Breweries can help fund training and pilot projects on partner farms, reducing their carbon footprint while transforming beer production into a force for social and environmental good. We were founded by the husband-and-wife team of Jeroen and Mellany Klompe, two farmers from the Netherlands who want to see nature cared for by every business and every farm. We’ve been working with purpose-driven businesses (such as B Corporations) and farmers across Europe to achieve this vision. 

For example, we connected the 400ha Showsley Farm near Towcester, Northamptonshire to three companies, including Toast Ale, which recycles bread into beer. This is one of the first examples of commercial companies paying for carbon offsets and additional ecosystem service benefits in the UK. 100ha of the farm are being supported by Toast, Huel, and allPlants, allowing the farmers to use diverse cover crops and no-till farming methods to increase soil carbon and protect biodiversity. Soil Heroes is also supporting the farm to replace chemical inputs with organic manures and replant field margins with bird feed and pollinator mixes.

On this, Louisa Ziane, Co-Founder and COO of Toast Ale, says:

“We decided to not only compensate for our emissions but to go much further and regenerate, so we’re investing in regenerative agriculture. As well as removing CO2 to make us carbon neutral, the enhancement of biodiversity means we can be nature positive. And ultimately, healthy soils are more nutrient-rich, giving us better food (and beer!).” 

Toast Ale

Toast Ale is a mission-driven brewery that produces beer from food waste. Their circular economy model sees beer brewed with surplus bakery bread, and they use 25% less malted barley than the average brewery. Any spent grain is fed to livestock and spent hops are composted and returned to the soil. Toast was the first UK Brewery to become a certified B Corp and the investments it has made in regenerative agriculture contribute to it being a carbon-neutral brewery. 

Soil Heroes connected Toast Brewery to the Cherry Family at Weston Park Farms, the front-runners of regenerative agriculture in the UK. This was in the lead up to COP26, when Toast Ale reached out to Soil Heroes for some help raising awareness about the impact of our food system on the planet. 

At the time, Toast had partnered with 26 other breweries to produce beer from waste bread with the profits from the project reinvested in rainforest restoration and regenerative agriculture projects. This climate-conscious beer was sold to consumers as part of the “Companion Series Case,” with all 26 beers being brewed with surplus bread. From Breakfast Stout to Raspberry Scotch Ale, the collection showcases a huge range of body and flavour.  

What are other brewers are doing?

It isn’t just the mission-driven breweries that are coming out in support of regenerative agriculture. Heineken is supporting 500 farms to trial regenerative and low carbon farming practices. The aim is to provide regenerative knowledge to 15,000 farmers around the world and achieve carbon neutrality by 2040. Meanwhile, Guinness is launching one of the most ambitious regenerative farming projects in Ireland, collaborating with 40 farms to pilot a regenerative program. Given the trajectory of consumer priorities, it should come as no surprise. People are more engaged with sustainability than ever before, so businesses must demonstrate a meaningful and long-term commitment to addressing the climate emergency and protecting biodiversity if they want to do business with the future consumer.  

In the wider industry, names like Nestle, Cargill, General Mills, Danone, Unilever and Walmart have all gone public with their support for regenerative agriculture. After careful reflection, the Soil Heroes team found our niche with values-driven businesses of a more human scale. We are proud to facilitate a regenerative transformation for our partner farmers and client businesses alike. Instead of balancing carbon emissions on a computer screen by buying carbon credits from a third-party broker, our clients get to put their feet on the ground of their supplier farms, where they see how their investment is enhancing biodiversity and protecting natural systems.

If you would like to find out more about supporting your suppliers to transition to regenerative practices, you can contact Tom, our business development manager using the link below.

Rubie van Crevel Soil Heroes Carbon Insetting Regenerative Agriculture

Rubie Van Crevel

Business Development, NL

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