Unilever’s Knorr to launch 50 regenerative agriculture projects over five years


Dive Brief:

  • Unilever’s Knorr rice and seasonings brand has announced plans to begin 50 projects to implement regenerative agriculture across its global supply chain that will address 80% of its key ingredients by 2026.

  • The effort starts this year with three projects, including one that is introducing farming techniques to preserve water and decrease carbon emissions at Knorr’s biggest rice supplier Riviana in Arkansas. Other projects include improving soil health with a Knorr tomato supplier in Spain, and enhancing climate resiliency with a vegetable supplier in France.
  • Regenerative agriculture aims to increase biodiversity, protect natural resources and fight climate change by drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and into the soil. Unilever has announced its program ahead of the United Nations’ COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, for which it is one of the principal partners.

Dive Insight:

In the past few years, Unilever has positioned itself as being ahead of other food CPGs when it comes to sustainability by announcing ambitious goals and programs. By 2025, the food giant has vowed to cut food waste in half, from factory to shelf. It also aims to cut virgin plastic packaging by 50% by 2025, with one-third coming from absolute plastic reduction. And it is working toward having a deforestation-free supply chain by 2023.

Unilever has also announced that it aims to have zero emissions in its operations by 2030, and be fully net zero across its value chain by 2039. The company considers this a more ambitious goal than other leading CPGs, many who have said they aim to hit net zero by 2050, such as Nestlé and Tyson. This is where regenerative agriculture can prove a pivotal tool in hitting these goals: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions came from the agriculture sector in 2019. The global food system accounts for one-third of worldwide emissions, according to the U.N.

Stefani Millie, senior manager of sustainability at Unilever U.S., told Food Dive that is why Knorr’s regenerative agriculture program is beginning with key ingredient suppliers such as Riviana.

“You can’t just pop in and out of relationships with suppliers,” Millie said. “You have to invest for the long term and work with them for five to 10 years to get to where we want to go.”

Millie said Unilever is aware of some potential challenges around implementing regenerative agriculture across its supply chain. “You have very different types of soils, different practices going on between the farmers, so you have to design programs with flexibility,” Millie said. An approach that prioritizes the differing conditions of the local areas where particular grains or vegetables are grown is crucial, she said.

Knorr, which Unilever acquired in 2000, said in its press release that its agriculture efforts over the past 10 years have culminated in 95% of the vegetables and herbs it uses around the world being sourced sustainably.

Millie said Unilever considers embracing “really big, audacious goals” as having a greater impact than carrying out projects that are more of an easy lift. Rival companies, according to Millie, have set more “risk averse” and incremental climate goals.

“The perspective we take on it is, ‘Let’s really push and see how far we can go and try to make the biggest change possible,’ even if we don’t get 100% there,” Millie said.

Other leading CPGs have embraced regenerative agriculture as a way to draw down their emissions, such as PepsiCo, which plans to expand regenerative agriculture practices to 7 million acres of farmland by 2030, equal to roughly all the land it uses to grow potatoes, oats and other commodities for its products. Nestlé announced last month that it will be investing $1.29 billion over the next five years to support and accelerate the transition to regenerative agriculture across its global supply chain.