Soup-to-Nuts podcast: Unilever’s Knorr reduces environmental impact with 50 regenerative ag projects in 5 years

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/ Iryna Imago
Source: Getty/ Iryna Imago

Related tags Soup-To-Nuts Podcast Knorr Unilever regenerative agriculture

Given the food system currently contributes a third of greenhouse gas emissions and is a driving cause of soil and species loss, adopting ‘sustainable’ practices is no longer enough to save the planet’s health or ensure sufficient nutritious food for future generations, which is why soup mix, spice-blend and meal kit maker Knorr is launching 50 regenerative agriculture projects around the world in the next five years.

The ambitious effort announced last week is part of Knorr’s broader mission to reinvent food for humanity and get food that is good for people and the planet on 7 billion plates by 2025 globally. It also builds on parent company Unilever’s Regenerative Agriculture Principles, which were announced this spring and focus on five priority areas where the company says it can generate the biggest impact.

As an industry leader and the largest food brand within Unilever, Knorr is leveraging its scale and position in the industry and supply chain to test, learn and share best practices with the hope that other brands and stakeholders will “join hands”​ to confront the threats facing the environment, acknowledge their contributions to the problem and identify where and how they can make a positive impact.

In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts​, global marketing sustainability lead at Knorr for Unilever Dorothy Shaver shares why Knorr is undertaking this massive project on such a tight timeline, details about the first three projects started earlier this year, early lessons learned to help other stakeholders following its lead and how doing good for the planet is also good for business.

[Editor’s Note: Never miss another episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast – subscribe​ today.]

Leveraging the food system to help, not hurt, the environment

The magnitude of  Knorr’s roadmap for reducing the environmental impact of the food system and restoring the earth’s health underscores the urgency of change.

“The planet is in a crisis and we urgently need to accelerate to really reverse the damage that’s being done,”​ starting with the impact of the food system, which currently is a top contributor to climate change, Shaver said.

“We're all aware of the climate crisis and food contributes more than a third of greenhouse gas emissions, which of course is a key contributor to climate change. We also know that water scarcity is a major issue with some experts saying that if we continue in this direction, we actually won't have any water left in 30 years. And food is the number one user of water,​” Shaver said.

In addition, she said, “the equivalent of a soccer field of soil is lost every five seconds. And food is a key contributor to soil loss and erosion. And also a big topic that's been talked about lately is that more than 1 billion species are threatened with extinction and expected to get worse. And this really threatened ecosystems that we depend on and food is a top contributor of species loss.”

While the current food system is deeply flawed, Shaver said she believes it also can be a “valuable lever to unlock human and planetary health.”

She explained that Knorr is leveraging food production for good by advocating for increased variety, which can help restore diversity and the soil, and for production closer to communities.

The third way it is pushing for change is by adopting and advancing regenerative agriculture, such as with the 50 projects it plans to launch in the next five years.

First 3 projects focus on water, GHG & soil health

With a tight timeline of five years, Knorr isn’t wasting any time launching the 50 projects that collectively will help Knorr lower greenhouse gas emissions of key ingredients by 35%, reduce water use 30%, improve soil health and improve diversity.

Already it has launched three projects, which were selected based on existing relationships with suppliers, and their potential impact – so picking key ingredients with high volume, that are important to Knorr’s portfolio and which can drive the most positive change.

In the first project, Knorr partnered with its rice supplier Riviana and the University of Arkansas to measure reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and water capture.

The second project focused on improving the yield and quality of tomatoes grown in southern Spain, and the soil in which they are produced.

The third project in Northern France with vegetable supplier Ardo to improve soil health and climate resiliency in response to lower yields due to weather highlights the importance of partnerships in Knorr’s initiative.

Fostering a spirit of partnership even among competitors

In the spirit of partnership, Unilever and Knorr are encouraging other industry stakeholders to join forces to drive change further. And to help them, it is making its guiding principles available in the public domain and sharing lessons that it learns along the way.

One of the early lessons that Knorr has learned from its efforts so far is to design projects with suppliers and farmers to ensure that they offer solutions to real challenges, rather than making arbitrary policy changes that may or may not have an impact.

“The second one is using external partners and experts, not just to help, but also to get input on what we're doing, but to monitor and track the process and work together in order to have more impact. So I think that's a really big one,”​ Shaver said.

The third lesson may be the most trying – and that is a lesson in patience.

I'm openly sitting in the marketing team and we like things that we can see the results of tomorrow, you know, we're people and we all like that. And we want to say, you know, today I put it in this effort. And so tomorrow I’ll see this impact. And that's human behavior. But in this case, we have to ensure we have a long-term investment and commitment because these projects take time and they take resources”​ and because they are in nature they can be volatile and unpredictable, Shaver said.

Reaping returns on investment

To sustain investments in regenerative agriculture and the environment long term, Knorr is leveraging its efforts to create deeper connections with its consumers.

We understand that to be a force for good we have to make planetary benefits of business benefit. We also understand that we have the responsibility to act, and we also know that people are craving a connection to nature. So, we really need to take a look and say, how can we make this a business opportunity? And how can we tell these stories to really grow our business, get new consumers and gain the trust and the love of existing and new people,”​ Shaver said.

She acknowledges that talking about environmental efforts – which can include starts and stops – can be scary, but most consumers recognize it is a journey and that no one has all the answers.

Shaver also notes that when talking about environmental impact with consumers, companies need to use language and concepts that most people will understand. This means instead of bandying about terms like ‘regenerative agriculture,’ telling consumers that the equivalent of 25 swimming pools of water was saved.

Approachable language, like this, also is more likely to sway consumers to change their behavior or buy products that are better for the environment – which can help build the business necessary to sustain long-term change.

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