Every April, when the trees begin to bud and flower and the earth awakens from hibernation, we are reminded of the movement we are all a part of. Every April, we see widespread efforts to clean up our communities, social media campaigns to participate in Earth Day challenges, and proclamations that our friends and families are taking a pledge to reduce their impact on the environment.
We launched our online Innovation Series last year in an effort to keep the conversations going about the promising, disruptive solutions to the unique challenges our food system was facing. In keeping with this year’s Earth Day campaign to ‘Restore Our Earth’, we gathered some of the best advice that arose from our conversations with product developers and scientists for CPGs to keep in mind.
Stop calling ingredients trendy
Consumer trends in the natural products industry have given way to the rise of ‘trendy ingredients’ that quickly become highly sought after and can just as quickly become no longer desirable. We know that prioritizing ingredients in such a fluctuating manner can have severe economic and ecological consequences, as demonstrated by skyrocketing demand for quinoa that harmed farming communities in South America.
Mike Lee, Co-Founder & Co-CEO of Alpha Food Labs, likes to think of the solution to avoiding trendy ingredients as eating the Omakase way, or following the lead of a Japanese chef: instead of ordering 12 pieces of fatty tuna for dinner, let the chef prepare what they know is delicious, in season, and in abundance. “The big food system has been engineered around that ‘let’s order 12 pieces of fatty tuna’ mentality of finding a new ingredient, celebrating it as a superfood, and scaling it. That’s how food trends have been working. Every year you go to Expo West and everyone asks ‘What’s the new trendy ingredient?”
We’ve seen what happens with trends: a new ingredient starts popping up in the nutrition label of many types of products, we move on to the next trend, and demand decreases. But what would happen if an ecosystem drove demand for a product instead of the consumer? “How do you, from the start, think about building a system that, once scaled, you’d be excited about because you didn’t actually stress out and put the environment out of balance, but you actually brought more balance to it? You put a billion dollars worth of demand into some regenerative system versus a billion dollars of demand centered around a single ingredient that incentivizes the whole supply chain to monocrop it?” – Mike Lee, Co-Founder & Co-CEO of Alpha Food Labs
Provide a long-term economic incentive for farmers
If we want to create models for transitioning to and sustaining regenerative agriculture, we must strategically invest enough resources at the farm level to empower growers, promote autonomy, and instill a sense of security.
Runa, an energy drink with a mission to improve the livelihoods for Amazonian farmers, was able to create a value chain for guayusa grown in biodiverse agroforestry plots, by farming families, and managed through cooperatives in fair trade. “We were trying to give [the growers] a way to use their baseline relationship to the rainforest but give it enough commercial value to sustain that system as opposed to burning the whole thing down and trying to grow corn or extract all the hardware they can. The idea was never to make them dependent on a market economy whatsoever, especially not to make them dependent on one crop. Our technical team is very well trained to make sure they have various income sources and diversified streams so they aren’t dependent on one crop.” – Tyler Gage, Co-Founder and CEO of Runa
As part of its commitment to advance regenerative agriculture across 100 million acres, General Mills has launched pilot programs that provide participating farmers with tools needed to implement regenerative practices and measure outcomes, including farmer economic resilience. “Farmers are really hungry for this information. A lot of them have their backs against the wall economically and they’re looking for a different way to operate. We’re providing one-on-one coaching for three years because it’s a process that evolves: there are so many ingrained assumptions about agriculture that farmers carry with them, and it’s going to take time to overcome that even among those that already have an open mind.” – Steve Rosenzweig, Soil Scientist at General Mills
Create a market for biodiverse, resilient crops
We’re not talking about making single ingredient claims and placing ‘Made with biodiverse ingredients, like oats!’ on cereal boxes. Like all crops, oats aren’t inherently biodiverse, and while they have been touted as a biodiverse ingredient because they have been planted less commonly than corn and soy, they could also have been planted in an agricultural landscape that destroyed a high-value ecosystem. Acknowledging biodiversity only at the agricultural level is limiting for companies that are trying to innovate, and we invite CPGs to consider the potential generated by thinking about biodiversity in the context of an eight-level framework.
We’re starting to see more and more brands looking at biodiversity in a deeper way, going beyond focusing on the product itself and looking at the systemic impacts on biodiversity from all of the life phases of the product. Yolélé has been instrumental in creating a market for an ancient West-African grain in the United States and incorporates underutilized, resilient crops like moringa, baobab, and dawadawa into its emerging product lines. Their efforts have fostered biodiverse ecosystems, alleviated poverty, and connected smallholder farmers using regenerative techniques like intercropping, cover-cropping, and crop rotation to global markets. “Rotation is our traditional way of practicing agriculture. After fonio, we would like farmers to grow bambara beans or some types of legumes so that it enriches the soil, but we need to find markets for these bambara beans, we need to find markets for moringa, so that’s why we’re adding these products in a targeted way.” – Pierre Thiam, Co-Founder & President of Yolélé
Acknowledge that progress doesn’t have to be perfect
Innovating towards regeneration and designing circular systems requires a complete shift in thinking that goes beyond the individualistic mindset and continually evolves along with the community and ecosystem. While Numi’s plant-based, completely compostable packaging remarkably demonstrates their mission of creating ‘earth-to-earth products,’ Jane Franch, VP of Strategic Sourcing and Sustainability, acknowledges that when it comes to regenerative design, progress isn’t linear.
“One of the design thinking traps people fall into with packaging is the sense that ‘Well, the solution I want doesn’t exist and this solution is imperfect and therefore we’re not actually going to change anything, or the consumers maybe don’t care anyway, or I’m not getting the benefit I want from it.’ I see a lot of organizations stumbling on this idea of ‘Well, there’s not really municipal composters to even collect this material so why should we bother?
That kind of thinking fails to recognize that what’s being called for here is a whole paradigm shift and therefore we all have to do our part in moving the paradigm even if the piece that you’re doing isn’t the complete solution. We need to overcome that thinking in packaging because it’s the pursuit of perfect at the expense of progress.” – Jane Franch, VP of Strategic Sourcing and Sustainability at Numi Organic Tea
Think about a product being in service to an ecosystem rather than an ecosystem being in service to a product
Our current food system operates under the assumption that an ecosystem is in service to a product. We extract resources from targeted ecosystems, boost productivity of certain crops by utilizing industrial techniques, and treat resources as commodities. We need to flip that mindset and embrace the regenerative way of thinking: a product is in service to the crop and the crop is in service to the ecosystem.
White Buffalo Land Trust aims to inspire the next generation of land stewards to embrace regenerative agriculture, and their restorative food brand is developing products that hold regeneration to its core. Their first product takes a climate-appropriate, perennial persimmon tree and value adds it through the process of making vinegar, yielding a prebiotic, regenerative superfood. “When we look at product development in service to the ecosystem, it ends up that it becomes in service to the person” – Lauren Tucker, Director of Product Development at White Buffalo Land Trust
What types of products can support the interacting elements of the landscape or eco-region in which you’re working? “There’s all these other potential crops and ingredients and flavors and visuals and stories to be told when you do it from a holistic ecosystem perspective. To be a regenerative system there has to be diversity in that system: what are the cover crops, what are the hedgerows, what are the overstory nutrient-giving crops, what are the pollinator species? How do we start to incorporate those other elements into our product formulations, whether it be for flavor, medicinal purposes, or color?” – Jesse Smith, Director of Land Stewardship at White Buffalo Land Trust
We’re excited to continue the conversations with product developers about challenges they’ve faced in implementing regenerative design and the breakthrough innovations that have come to fruition as a result. For session recordings of past conversations with thought leaders and registration information for upcoming sessions in the Innovation Series, visit our website.