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Sylvain CharleboisRegenerative agriculture is making some noise of late – so much so that some companies are making it a priority.

Foods, the world’s largest producer of french fries, just committed to limiting its climate footprint, saying all its french fries will come from farms using regenerative agriculture by 2030.

For consumers, this is supposed to mean that within nine years, McCain will only be buying potatoes from farms that use more sustainable agricultural practices.

McCain commits to farming techniques that promote biodiversity and more plant cover on fields. Those practices minimize soil disturbance and maximize crop diversity to increase water efficiency, protect against erosion, capture more carbon, and create greater resilience to droughts and floods.

Six principles were presented by McCain. Farmers will also be expected to minimize soil disturbance and use less fertilizer and pesticides. In the potato business, these would be significant steps. This could reduce yields for partnering farmers and increase the cost of products.

And as these shifts require some form of accounting, it could mean more paperwork for McCain’s suppliers.

Changing practices for a stronger planet is where we all are these days and McCain is trying to make its contribution. No problem there.

On the surface, it may sound like a bold move from the french fry king, but very few details were given as far as specific targets go. Without any specific metric to make the company more accountable, McCain’s announcement reads very much like those of other companies that have jumped on the regenerative agriculture bandwagon. PepsiCo, Nestle and General Mills are some companies that have committed to specific initiatives like McCain’s.

These companies mean well and generally want to make a difference, but they all face more well-deserved skepticism. Canadians are growing impatient with bold promises made by the food industry.

Most recently, the Retail Council of Canada backed away from its promise on cage-free eggs by 2025 and the phasing out of gestation stalls for pregnant pigs by 2022. It argued this couldn’t be done, even though a promise was made a few years ago.

Other companies, like Starbucks, have also failed to deliver on environmentally focused objectives in recent years, giving way to more collective cynicism.

In agriculture, it’s the same thing. The pandemic got people thinking differently about food supply chains. Most Canadians went from wanting a transparent food industry to wanting one in which they could understand how it functions. One piece is certainly how and where agricultural commodities are grown, here and elsewhere.

McCain, and other companies, are fully aware that Canadians don’t expect private land managers to act in the best interest of society without the proper incentives to encourage that action.

Making ecological stewardship the norm is a top priority for many anti-big-agriculture interest groups, as we get closer to the United Nations Food Systems Summit later this year. The focus will be to set a path to reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Major agribusiness companies like McCain are expected to provide some answers – and quick. This is likely why many companies, including McCain, are choosing 2030 as a target. It’s all about the UN goals.

But skepticism is a two-way street. For some, regenerative agriculture is a feel-good slogan that’s flexible enough to bend to a listener’s preconceived environmental biases.

As the term regenerative agriculture has only been thrown around for a few years, it clearly has set the record for rapid eco-stewardship watering-down of what it really means. Principles can be set in many ways, without specific, measurable goals.

Despite all that, McCain’s move isn’t trivial. Such a call will resonate with consumers and within the company’s network. The company is known for skilful methods within its supply chain. It understands it quite well. Farmers and its broader network were likely consulted thoroughly before the announcement.

The regenerative agriculture call is very much about setting the field up for some new collaborative work with partners, with a different focus on natural resource management. In doing so, inputs, actions and performances will all need to be measured, and McCain knows more work is needed on that front. Extraordinary claims will always require extraordinary evidence.

So if you’re not buying McCain’s commitment, you’re likely not alone. But this call isn’t just about consumers. It’s more about preparing its ecosystem for changes in years to come. As McCain befriends the concept of regenerative agriculture, it will also need to define what this means for its network.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

Sylvain is one of our contributors. For interview requests, click here.

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