Ep 107: Is there a better way to produce our food? | Redesigning food series
How can a circular economy for food help address some of today’s biggest global issues?
As the brand behind products including Ben and Jerry’s, Hellmann’s and Marmite, Unilever represents an important opportunity to scale a circular economy for food. In this episode, we’ll hear from the company’s Vice President & Managing Director, Eric Soubeiran, about how the business is shifting towards a regenerative and nature-positive approach in the creation of its products. We’ll also hear from The Sustainable Food Trust’s Patrick Holden, who partnered with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to launch the Big Food Redesign Challenge earlier this year.
Pippa Shawley 0:03
As the brand behind products including Ben and Jerry’s, Hellmann’s and Marmite, Unilever represents an important opportunity to scale a circular economy for food. As we heard in our Redesigning Food series earlier this year, our current food system is a major driver of emissions and biodiversity loss, but we can intentionally design a food system using circular design principles to have a positive impact on nature. I’m Pippa, and in today’s episode of the Circular Economy Show Podcast, we’re back at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Summit 23 to hear from Eric Soubeiran, Vice President & Managing Director at Unilever, and Patrick Holden from the Sustainable Food Trust, who partnered with the Foundation to launch the Big Food Redesign Challenge. They spoke to the Foundation’s Food Lead, Reniera O'Donnell. She began by asking Eric how Unilever was shifting towards a more regenerative approach.
Eric Soubeiran 0:58
I think fundamentally, regeneration is a philosophy in a way. And I think it's very good to start from that because we are, we are social animals, right? And in a way, it's about how do you steward what's natural resources for the next generation. So saying that there is a notion of responsibility. And I think when you are in a business, you have opportunities, but you also have responsibilities. Unilever products are used everyday by 3.5 billion people in the world. So this is the responsibility we have and this is our market. So trying to transition our value chain to what is regenerative, which means using resources, yes, because nature is a gift and is a resource in a way that we steward these resources for the next generation. So that's the transition in which we are. And this is basically where we are. And that's why we have developed a series of tools, including a climate and nature fund to do that. So that's really the logic we have behind this ambition is transitioning our value chain to something that will protect and regenerate or restore because 30% of the land is degraded for the next generation.
Reniera O'Donnell 2:07
Thank you. And Patrick coming to you. Why do we need a challenge like this to shift the food system to this more regenerative one that Eric has described?
Patrick Holden 2:16
Well, for the last, well really the whole of my farming lifetime, the farming and food systems upon which we depend have been part of the problem in terms of greenhouse gas emissions of destruction of nature, and negative impacts on people. But having been part of the problem, the farming and food systems of the future absolutely can become part of the solution. And I can say that from firsthand experience because in three days time, on the 18th of June, we will be celebrating 50 years of sustainable regenerative food production on my farm and the consequences, the impacts on carbon going back into the soil on nature, and on food quality are fantastic. We need to take this to scale. Now, I just want to say this to Ellen, to Andrew, and to the EMF team, thank you for partnering with us. We're proud to be partners with you. And we think together, we can take this to scale. Everybody eats. We need our eating to be part of the solution. It can be.
Reniera O'Donnell 3:17
I absolutely agree with you. But you talk there about you've had 50 years of experience and your farm is showing that it can actually be done. So we know it can be done. And we know that a regenerative approach to how we produce and grow the food that we eat is fantastic in terms of combating climate change and biodiversity loss and, you know, a really solid food system. So why isn't it scaling, Patrick?
Patrick Holden 3:39
Well, one of the key barriers is financial. Of course, I know about this, because I was very involved with the development of the organic movement. And I was just talking to Eric, about this just now, during the recession, people have been down trading. So we need regeneratively produced food to be a price point which is accessible to all to achieve that we need a new coalition of food companies and retailers. Yes, but also banks, and investors who reward farmers who deliver positive climate, nature, and people outcomes financially. And that way we shift the balance of financial advantage. So normal farmers, mainstream farmers can transition. That's what this big food redesign can help achieve.
Reniera O'Donnell 3:39
So Eric, Patrick has talked about the reason that we're not scaling at the rate that we need to is down to the economics not working. And Unilever has created a billion euro fund for climate and nature of which I understand you've already deployed about 200 million of that, how is this fund helping to deliver on those outcomes and helping move into a more regenerative future?
Eric Soubeiran 4:41
Yeah, and I think Patrick is right to put the economics at the centre. And I think it's a topic of one of our next session this afternoon. It's very important. The climate and nature Fund is a 1 billion euro allocation that we have. It's not a fund. It's a budget line that we're going to mobilise. Without any really, theory in terms of the way the money is used, is it equity, or is it programmes we bought, but it's to mobilise and transition basically the way we are producing our products. It's relatively simple and complex. So to do that, we've identified the interconnection between what's material for Unilever, and where we can have an impact because we are who we are. And we've identified seven investment platforms that are very transformational for us. egenerative agriculture is one, how you transition some of our fossil based material to nature based material in a non extractive way, for instance the surfactant we use in personal care. So these are examples. And then we have, I think, three thematic of investments. Either you have programme management, because in a way you need to prime the pump. And you need to help your suppliers, your farmers to manage the G curve, which is the two, three, sometimes seven years of transition toward regenerative practices. And that's important to be there to support either through offtake or through working capital support. But we are also seeing the importance of long term investment like equity based. This is, for instance, why we have co invested with AXA climate and Tikehau captial to create an equity arm for that. Because to give entrepreneurs, because at the end, farmers are entrepreneurs as well, the capacity to invest long term. So we're mobilising that and we're implementing that. One example, our Reg(enerative) Ag(riculture) programme that we've announced this year will mobilise around 40 programmes with 350,000 hectares to transition some of our key value chain like Helmanns mayonnaise in the US or in the UK, where we have already, we are implementing regenerative practices for about 240,000 acres of land. So that's an example where the economics works. And I think the last point we were discussing with Patrick is, regeneration is also about resilience. And I think some of your CFO mentioned that, actually, you have a business case, one of the difficulties we're facing is aligning synchronising the times because it takes time to change and nature doesn't have you know, a quarterly cycle, like, like a listed companies. So actually the Fund helps to do that as well.
Reniera O'Donnell 7:15
Amazing. I mean, one of the things that I know that we've talked about is that if you're going to attract investment, like from the Unilever fund, and from other funds that are out there, you have to be able to measure what somebody is investing in and the Sustainable Food Trust has developed the Global Fund metric, how do you see the Global Fund metric and measurement playing into the space?
Patrick Holden 7:35
Well, I've already said that we need to reward farmers for delivering, say, soil carbon increase or benefits to biodiversity or social benefits. But in order to do that we need reliably to measure the impact of different farming systems and we need to do that with a language which is just truly global. Because if you take a company like Unilever, I mean, your sourcing is all over the world and therefore, the sourcing criteria and the measurement needs to be literally internationally harmonised. And that's the core part of our partnership with the EMF. I'm very excited about that. Just a word about processed foods because all of us, eat brands, Unilever brands, other brands, and some of us have some guilty food secrets like mine are Tesco’s Belgian chocolate eclairs, M&Ms, KitKat, that sort of stuff. There we are, Snickers. And actually, why couldn't we buy foods which have a good sustainable production story behind the raw ingredients, as well as fresh fruits? Of course, we can do all this if we measure and reward. That's the core of the partnership.
Reniera O'Donnell 8:40
Absolutely. And that leads me on to my final question to you, Eric, which is a bit cheeky, because you're investing a lot and you've got some fantastic programmes and the sort of regenerative approach is built into Unilever's strategy. But down to those sneaky guilty pleasures, what is stopping me today from walking into a supermarket, grabbing some Pot Noodles off the shelf and knowing that as a result of my purchase, nature is better off?
Eric Soubeiran 9:06
So I don't know what stops you personally, because we have delicious ice cream that are regenerative or great mayonnaise as well. With Hellmann and if you're in the US 30% of what we put as oil is regenerative in our Helmann product, but joke about I think, what's what's I think three things. First, we need to realign interventions. There is 1 trillion euros of money that is used everywhere in the world, we need to redirect that to impact rather than volumes. I think that's very important. So there is a political angle to that. The second point, we need creativity. And I don't shy away, because when I say that our brands touch 3.5 billion people every year, our marketing teams are bright, they need to incorporate that element to the way they're reaching out to consumers. And sometimes I joke internally, and I say it would be fantastic to talk about regeneration as we talk about a football player, right? And if we are able to create that attractivity it's very important. The other point that is also key is of course, the point that that Patrick was mentioning, is the measurement, reporting and verification. It's important collectively as an industry that we accept that progress is better than perfection. If you take the soil carbon sequestration, this has been discussed for years. And we still don't have a measurement that has been coordinated. So we cannot drive the resourcing there, and works like what the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is doing help to create through this convening power, the capacity to create this consensus as an industry and it's very important.
Pippa Shawley 10:42
If you work in the food industry, whether you’re part of a global organisation like Unilever, or you’re a small brand working on an exciting new product, there are only a few days left to join the Big Food Redesign Challenge. You can find out more or sign up via the link in the show notes of this episode. And if you want to learn more about the opportunities for a circular economy for food, scroll back through your podcast feed and listen to our Redesigning Food series.
How can a circular economy for food help address some of today’s biggest global issues?
Meet the farmers working to regenerate natural systems
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Big Food Redesign Challenge aims to inspire the food industry to...
Rather than bending nature to produce food, food can be designed for nature to thrive
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation works to accelerate the transition to a circular economy. We develop and promote the idea of a circular economy, and work with business, academia, policymakers, and institutions to mobilise systems solutions at scale, globally.
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