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Why Walmart’s quest to be a regenerative farming pioneer is falling short

April 4, 2022, 4:00 PM UTC

Amidst a sea of corporate climate pledges, the world’s largest retailer, Walmart is taking on regenerative farming, aiming to help suppliers and their partners “transition to a more sustainable and regenerative future in agricultural production.”

In September, Walmart and its subsidiary Sam’s Club pledged to “manage or restore at least 50 million acres of land” related to ecosystems that produce food and other consumer products by 2030 and spearhead an industry move toward “a more regenerative agricultural system.” The program is part of its ambitious sustainability initiative called Project Gigaton, which is aimed at reducing one gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain by 2030. 

Walmart stated in a report updated in July 2021 that approximately 6 million of supplier acres were involved in fertilizer optimization and soil health practice programs in 2020, based on supplier reports.

Despite these commitments, industry analysts think their initiative is falling short because of its voluntary nature and focus on staple crop cultivation. Behind the label of “regenerative” and an expansive media campaign, experts argue that Walmart is doing little to actually push the envelope in the agricultural industry at large. 

“They’re kind of like painting on top of a crumbling wall, they’re not fixing the wall,” says Silvia Secchi, a professor at the department of geographical and sustainability sciences at the University of Iowa. Secchi received her doctorate degree in economics and specializes in the environmental impacts of agriculture in the Midwest. “They are making some changes to the visible part that the consumer sees without really looking at the structural stability” of the current agricultural system, she notes.

Walmart’s sustainability drive

Mikel Hancock, senior director of sustainable food and agriculture for Walmart, says that Walmart started focusing on sustainability after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. 

The retailer crafted a number of “moonshot goals” in the wake of the disaster, including a focus on selling sustainable products. These ideas turned into conversations with suppliers like Kellogg’s and PepsiCo, which resulted in Walmart pledging in September 2020 to become a “regenerative company,” which Walmart defines as a broad commitment to “placing nature and humanity at the center of our business.”

Digging deeper, the company says they “firmly believe that implementing these practices will drive value through increased crop yield resiliency, improved soil health, natural resource preservation, and, in many cases, increased profitability for the farmer.” 

Analysts raise several concerns about these assertions, noting that while the practices that Walmart is encouraging its supplier farms to follow are generally favorable to the environment, they’re not mandatory.

The “Wild West” of regenerative farming

The nature and efficacy of regenerative agricultural practices are another cause of debate.

Definitions of regenerative agriculture differ greatly across organizations and are at the heart of assessing the efficacy of Walmart’s initiative. Walmart has defined regenerative agriculture as “restoring, renewing, and replenishing in addition to conserving” by shifting row crop agriculture through practices that build soil health and environmental outcomes, all while ensuring the “prosperity and equity” of customers.

With little regulatory supervision surrounding the definition of regenerative agriculture, there’s no mandate for Walmart or its competitors to include specific terms or measurables. A study of how research articles and practitioners define regenerative agriculture found that only 51% of research articles that used the term supplied any sort of definition, and among the sources that did provide a definition the details varied dramatically. While organizations like Regenerative Organic Certified are seeking to streamline what consumers can expect from a regenerative label, there is still no industry consensus. 

“It’s the Wild West, when it comes to certification,” Secchi notes, referring to the growing movement to create regenerative certification standards.

In a 2021 statement, Walmart shared its plan to become a “regenerative company” by supporting 30,000 Midwestern farm operations in the transition to regenerative agriculture and by showing “multiple measurable regenerative outcomes” on at least 1 million of that 30 million acreage by 2030. 

Walmart’s Sustainable Row Crop Position Statement, published in September 2021, centers on a broad array of suggested best practices, including the use of cover crops, conservation tillage, crop rotation, 4R nutrient management (right use of fertilizer), integrated pest management, the creation of grassed waterways, and agriculture conservation easements. The progress of partner farms will be measured using two analytical platforms, Fieldprint and Cool Farm, which are designed to assess progress across a variety of factors. Reductions of net on-farm greenhouse gas emissions will be moderated using “industry-standard approaches for the agriculture sector” based on Greenhouse Gas Protocol.

Walmart says that they “encourage product suppliers to actively support our sustainable row crop efforts” but does not clarify how these suggestions will actually shape the company’s buying and distribution decisions. 

“Do we mandate it? Definitely not, we don’t mandate it,” says Hancock, who further clarifies that “the reason [for a lack of mandate] is that there are multiple ways to be able to get to what we’re looking for.”

One key mechanism for Walmart achieving these outcomes is its partnership with the Midwest Row Crop Initiative, a collaboration of giant supply-chain companies and environmental nonprofit organizations working to “drive positive environmental change” in the upper Mississippi River Basin. Partners include Cargill, Kellogg’s, the Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife Foundation. Their stated goals are broad, including measurable progress toward a combination of “regenerative practices,” a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, and financial support for farmers. Ariel Kagan, director of agriculture strategy for the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, explains that “farmers work with the companies through an implementing partner to get a cost share or some other financial incentive to make those changes on their land.”

For Secchi and other agriculture policy experts, however, the lack of mandatory requirements and lack of clarity surrounding the number of regenerative practices that a farm must engage in offer little room for substantial change in the agricultural sector. 

“As long as Walmart makes these kind of piecemeal claims without really addressing the structural imbalances,” says Secchi, “the consumer thinks, ‘Oh, I’m buying this milk or I’m buying these eggs, so I’ve done my part.’ But we have less of a push to change the way our agricultural policies work.” 

Walmart’s regenerative farming program is limited in scope by design. It is focusing on row crop cultivation and “food staples like wheat, corn, soy, and rice.” Hancock explains that targeting staple grains emerged from a desire to “manage the system that we already have in front of us today” and make the largest change. 

Yet a recent study published in the journal Nature in June 2021 shows that corn and soybean are crops maladapted to a changing climate. More broadly, according to the USDA, only a tiny fraction of corn grown in the U.S. directly feeds the nation’s people, and much of that is from high-fructose corn syrup. Experts argue that to make an impact through regenerative farming, we need to start creating markets for smaller grains, such as oats and rye, and integrate livestock with crop systems

Dan Miller, founder and CEO of Steward, an online agricultural lending company geared at financing the growth of small-scale regenerative farms, argues that regenerative agriculture works best when it integrates different types of plant and animal cultivation on a single plot of land. Miller says this is “exactly the opposite of large row crop conventional,” which typically has only one to two crops growing on a single plot. 

For many in the regenerative agriculture space, marrying livestock and crop systems is critical to what regenerative agriculture represents. 

“Regenerative agriculture, if it really is going to meet the challenge of its name, would integrate these two systems again,” argues Secchi.

There are also concerns that by focusing on sequestering carbon and limiting greenhouse gas emissions, Walmart is losing sight of what regenerative agriculture is all about. 

Jeff Tkach, chief impact officer for the Rodale Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to organic agriculture research, thinks that “when we begin with the end in mind of carbon capture, it incentivizes farmers for the wrong behavior.” Instead of changing systemic shortcomings of row cropping, farmers are rewarded for shifting individual practices that may have only short-term impact. 

An entry point

Secchi and other experts think that by offering incentives for carbon sequestration, there is potential for farmers to engage in best practices on an on-and-off basis, for example, engaging in no-till practices and securing funds one year, only to resume tilling the following year.

Without a clear definition and regulation of regenerative agriculture, Walmart can continue to label its efforts as regenerative with few repercussions. 

“Glossy commitments, especially when they co-opt language from movements for justice and transformation, are generally just greenwashing,” says Lena Greenberg, senior media organizer for the nonprofit Corporate Accountability. Greenberg asserts such commitments are a “poor substitute for new agricultural policy or corporate law that would decentralize and democratize food systems.”

Secchi maintains that pressure from corporations to change problematic agricultural legislation, such as reforming crop insurance measures, would result in legitimate shifts in agriculture. USDA regulation of regenerative farming, like its governance of organic farming, could also help keep distributors accountable.

“All this interest in carbon, if done right, could be kind of like a lever, an entry point, to really change things,” she notes.

This story is part of The Path to Zero, a special series exploring how business can lead the fight against climate change.