GLOBAL – Unilever’s ambitious commitment to invest €1 billion (US$1.06 billion) in climate, nature, and resource efficiency projects over the next decade is making waves with its first regenerative agriculture initiatives in Spain, Italy, and the US. 

These projects aim to transform how Unilever’s food products are made and reach the end of their life cycle while aligning with the company’s goal of achieving net zero emissions by 2039.

One of the focal points of Unilever’s investment is integrating regenerative agriculture principles into rice cultivation for its food ingredients. These principles are designed to positively impact soil health, water and air quality, carbon capture, and biodiversity while ensuring high yields and nutritional quality with minimal resource inputs.

The initial results from Unilever’s regenerative agriculture projects are now emerging, shedding light on the promising prospects for food resilience and environmental sustainability.

In Italy’s Lombardy region, a significant hub for rice production, Unilever joined forces with supplier Parboriz to address rice pollution and greenhouse gas emissions associated with rice farming. The project involved testing and evaluating agricultural practices on four demonstration farms, leading to a substantial reduction in chemical residue in water and increased biodiversity.

Rice cultivation, which involves flooded fields, contributes significantly to methane emissions. To address this issue, Unilever partnered with rice supplier Riviana and the University of Arkansas in the US. Their efforts reduced methane emissions by 76%, as well as decreasing other greenhouse gas emissions, while also improving water savings and crop quality.

Unilever’s largest regenerative agriculture project to date in the US involves 523 farmers and over 35,000 hectares of cover crops to protect soil health. Findings indicate a 14% reduction in nitrate runoff water and a 6% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite these promising results, Unilever acknowledges that challenges remain, especially in encouraging farmers to adopt these new practices. The company is optimistic about the potential of regenerative agriculture principles. It aims to expand its efforts, with plans to have around 300,000 hectares contracted by the end of the year and to grow to over 1,000 programs by 2030.

Unilever’s leadership believes that the time for small-scale pilot projects is over, and it’s now “time to go big” to bring resilience to the supply of food ingredients and enhance the environmental impact of farming.

Unilever’s dedication to regenerative agriculture principles not only holds promise for sustainable rice production but also demonstrates the company’s commitment to making a positive impact on the environment and food security.

Similarly, in the Badajoz region of Spain, where water scarcity and depleted underground water reserves are pressing challenges, Unilever partnered with tomato supplier Agraz to support farmers in coping with climate change. 

They implemented sensors and soil probes to optimize water usage for irrigation, resulting in a 37% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of tomatoes compared to pre-project levels. Moreover, soil organic matter and fertility increased significantly.