Food corporations commit to more sustainable farming before climate meeting Ahead of the U.N. climate change conference, CEOs of huge food corporations, including Mars, PepsiCo and McDonald's, are making regenerative agriculture commitments.

Big food companies commit to 'regenerative agriculture' but skepticism remains

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Ahead of the international climate change conference in Egypt next week, major food corporations today announced a plan to address their greenhouse gas emissions connected to agriculture supply chains. Dana Cronin reports.

DANA CRONIN, BYLINE: The world's food system accounts for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and the private sector is a huge part of that, says Ricardo Salvador with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

RICARDO SALVADOR: They're invested in the system which generates greenhouse gas emissions. And essentially, they are trapped by, you know, the need to continue to not only be profitable, but to grow their profits.

CRONIN: A chunk of those emissions come from the farms that grow ingredients for these companies, including corn, potatoes and rice. And a group of 12 mega food corporations, including Mars, PepsiCo and McDonald's, are trying to reduce that footprint by paying farmers to farm more sustainably - farmers like Will Cannon, who I talked to on the phone from the seat of his combine, harvesting his 1,000 acres of corn and soybeans near Prairie City, Iowa.

WILL CANNON: You know, when push comes to shove, you know, part of being sustainable is you have to be economically sustainable, right?

CRONIN: To sequester carbon on his farm, Cannon does things like plant cover crops, which trap carbon all winter long. He avoids tilling his soil as much, which keeps carbon in the ground. And the way he's made it economically sustainable is through food corporations PepsiCo and Unilever, who are helping foot the bill for what's commonly called regenerative agriculture. That type of partnership could become more common as a coalition of major food companies plans to scale up the amount of regenerative farmland. Grant Reid is the outgoing CEO of Mars and heads this industry task force.

GRANT REID: If we do that, that will take 600 million tons of greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere.

CRONIN: Six hundred million metric tons, by the way, is the equivalent to the annual emissions of 161 coal-fired power plants. It's not the first regenerative agriculture commitment we've seen from big food corporations. Last year, PepsiCo committed its entire global farming footprint - about 7 million acres - to more sustainable practices. So far, they've only tackled a few hundred thousand of those acres, though Chief Sustainability Officer Jim Andrew says that's to be expected in the first year.

JIM ANDREW: You're really building capabilities. You're building tools. You're building a set of partners on a global basis. You know, these things don't happen overnight.

CRONIN: And scaling that system across 12 different companies and supply chains won't be easy, especially because no two supply chains are the same. What works for a rice farmer in India might not work for a corn farmer in Iowa, says Grant Reid.

REID: There's no one size fits all, all right? So there's not one crop, one company, one country that's identical. So you can't be too prescriptive.

CRONIN: And the plan's lack of precision could make it difficult to track progress, especially when there's no real standardized definition of regenerative agriculture. There's no step-by-step guide or menu of requirements for regenerative farming, which can make it hard to verify that these corporate commitments are really helping combat climate change, says Ricardo Salvador with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

SALVADOR: In addition to being verifiable, it needs to be permanent. Because if it's not permanent, then in essence, it's not really helping us with climate change.

CRONIN: In other words, we need more farmers like Will Cannon to really make a dent in climate change.

For NPR News, I'm Dana Cronin.

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