From Soil to Table

From soil to table: How regenerative agriculture is changing food transparency

Regenerative agriculture – a method of farming that actively enriches soil and eco-systems rather than depleting them – is on the rise. The Future Laboratory looks at the companies using packaging and storytelling strategies to make the connection between the food you eat, the soil it grows in, and how this affects the planet.

Once the purveyor of industrially processed food, Big Food is now making a big show of its move to invest more time and money into sustainable agricultural practices. Chief among them is regenerative agriculture – an umbrella term for a system of farming principles and practices that actively promote soil health and biodiversity. It is the opposite of the current industrial agricultural process, which for decades has depleted soil health thanks to pesticide use and a focus on monocultures. But driven by consumer demand, the food industry is now looking to make some changes, and crucially, large CPG corporations not only want to invest in sustainable farming practices, they also want their customers to know about it.

We want to empower people to make a positive impact by choosing foods grown in ways that restore and regenerate natural resources and communities.

This desire to educate consumers about agriculture comes at a time when people are more concerned than ever about where their food comes from, and are keen to lead more sustainable and responsible lives. A recent survey in the US and Australia found that 77% of individuals want to learn more about sustainable lifestyles, and another study found that a majority (61%) of consumers are more likely to buy from companies working to reduce their climate change impact (sources: Forbes, Carbon Trust). The growing demand for transparency in the supply chain has led to the rise of local food and farm-to-table movements, as provenance becomes a key pillar of messaging. A rise in food safety scandals – from mislabeled seafood to the months-long E.coli outbreaks in romaine lettuce – has also driven this desire to know where food comes from and how it is made.

While in the past, the decision to implement certain farming practices may have remained of interest only to those in the industry, today regenerative agriculture offers an opportunity for brands that want to highlight their sustainability credentials. ‘Having a purpose isn’t enough any more,’ says Sara Harper, founder and CEO of Grounded Growth, an R&D resource for businesses and farmers. ‘Today’s consumers want to see the proof behind it. With outcomes-based data from regenerative farms, CPG brands can give it to them.’ Not since ‘organic’ became a popular term has a farming practice become such a central part of a product’s marketing story.

Regenerative agriculture and soil health are now becoming consumer-facing propositions and points of difference for brands. In March 2019, General Mills announced it would work with farmers to bring regenerative agriculture to 1 million acres of farmland by 2030. This follows the launch by General Mills’ CPG brand Annie’s of 2 limited-edition products in 2018 that advertised its ethical farming practices. Annie’s Organic Mac & Cheese and Organic Bunny Grahams were made with ingredients from farms that use regenerative farming methods. The products had exclusively designed packaging, with an illustration of a cross-section of soil, crops and roots, and a little sign in the dirt exclaiming ‘Soil Matters!’. It also listed the farms used to source the ingredients. ‘We hope that these products enable a conversation about why food choices matter,’ said Shauna Sadowski, senior sustainability manager at Annie’s at the time. ‘We want to empower people to make a positive impact by choosing foods grown in ways that restore and regenerate natural resources and communities.’


Now small, independent brands are also making their agricultural practices a key claim on their packaging. Alpha Food Labs, a start-up that creates new sustainable food products, is developing its first brand, Varietal, a snack line based on the notion of crop rotation – a crucial principle of regenerative farming. Its first snacks will be Crop Crackers, featuring ingredients that are grown in ways that ‘support biodiversity [and] healthier soils’. Each year, with a different crop rotation, a new product will come out, giving farmers an incentive to plant cover crops that make for healthier soil.

Baby food brand White Leaf Provisions offers puréed food pouches containing ingredients produced using biodynamic farming (a form of regenerative agriculture) that are certified 100% biodynamic. ‘I didn’t see anything in the baby food aisle that had that level of transparency,’ co-founder Keith Rowe told Food Navigator. ‘There’s a lot of organic and GMO-free, but I didn’t see any products focused on farming and farming practice. We’re feeding kids all these fantastic products but the majority of farming behind the product is actually destroying the planet they are going to inherit.’ The marketing for White Leaf’s products directly connects the ingredients with soil health, with the tagline Healthy Soil, Healthy Food. Similarly, organically farmed wine brand Bonterra aims to educate its customers on how its biodynamic farming practices produce not only better wine, but also better soil. In 2019 it announced the results of a year-long soil study that examined how Bonterra’s viticulture practices affected the vineyard’s soil. The brand then produced a short marketing film to share the results with its customers.

At present, no single certification indicates a food has been produced using regenerative agriculture methods. In the US, there is The Savory Institute’s EOV (Ecological Outcome Verification) seal, which tracks the outcome on soil health and biodiversity of a farm’s practices. The Regenerative Organic Alliance, a non-profit-making group led by the non-profit Rodale Institute and brands Patagonia and Dr Bronner’s, has also launched the Regenerative Organic Certified label, which aims to be ‘one standard to rule them all’ and requires farms to follow the main principles of regenerative agriculture. The seal is intended to move beyond organic to designate food that is not only good for people, but good for the planet as well. But, like all certification labels, there could be confusion when there are too many different labels and a strong consumer awareness campaign will be necessary.


These innovative brands are using packaging and marketing in the traditional manner to convey a story about soil health. While regenerative agriculture is becoming more recognized – a 2019 survey found that 22% of consumers have heard of regenerative agriculture, while 55% have heard of the term but indicate a desire to learn more (source: Forbes) – there is still a long way to go, and smart labels and packaging design can be an important part of the educational campaign. As Harper of Grounded Growth notes: ‘To do regenerative right now, you need to work directly with farmers, which means you will know who is providing a key ingredient and be able to share that positive story with consumers.’

As the conversation about regenerative agriculture continues, brands will have to find new means of sharing that story. While packaging has always provided an opportunity for brands to connect with consumers, it has the potential to become a much more thought-provoking and innovative space if on-pack education moves beyond factual and nutritional information. Combining certification and marketing with on-pack technology could offer a novel way to bring regenerative agriculture truly into the mainstream. One route could be to follow brands that are combining smart labels, QR codes and blockchain to help customers understand the provenance of their food. The next layer of transparency could mean not only informing customers about where their food is coming from, but also precisely what agricultural systems are being used that make it a better choice for people and the planet.


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