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Does the way we grow food impact its nutrient content? Research shows it can

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Findings from a new literature review reveal good evidence that regenerative agriculture practices can positively impact the nutrient content of rice and tomatoes.

Regenerative agriculture at Agraz tomato crop and farmer

Unilever scientists collaborated with the University of Nottingham and agricultural research institution, Rothamsted Research in the UK, to conduct a literature study (Opens in a pop-up window ) on regenerative agricultural practices that lead to improved nutrient content in key crops such as wheat, rice, tomatoes, onions and pulses.

The results showed good evidence for increased zinc content in rice grown under practices that increase soil organic matter (an indicator of improved soil health) and an increased vitamin C content in tomatoes grown under deficit irrigation. The latter is a strategy used to minimise the amount of water used without negatively impacting crop yields.

"Knorr Regenerative Agriculture rice crop in US

Practices that increase soil organic matter in wheat showed increased zinc content in half of the studies, suggesting that other factors such as genotype (variety), soil type and the amount of time practices have been in place could also be important drivers that influence the impact of regenerative agriculture practices on nutritional content.

In addition, other practices used in regenerative agriculture such as adding natural bio-stimulants (like mycorrhizal fungi or humic acids, which help to promote growth) or intercropping (growing more than one crop in the same patch) also showed potential for increases in zinc and iron levels in wheat. However, the number of studies was too small to draw any conclusions at this stage.

While the literature review showed promising results for some key crop types, more research is needed in the area. To date, very few studies have been done on maize and other cereals, pulses, onions and other vegetables. Further investigation is needed to fully understand how much of an impact regenerative agriculture has on the nutritional content of crops.

To date, research on agricultural practices has been predominantly focused on yield and resilience driven by the value of the yield, rather than the nutrient density. Successfully transforming food systems requires putting a value on both.

How Unilever is embracing regenerative agriculture

In April 2021, we introduced the Unilever Regenerative Agriculture Principles (Opens in a pop-up window ) as part of our commitment to food systems transformation. We have a roadmap with more than 100 regenerative agriculture projects at present covering ingredients for our brands: Knorr; Hellmann’s; Kissan and Ben & Jerry’s.

Regenerative agriculture is an ecosystem approach that includes farming in a way that improves soil health, biodiversity, water efficiency and climate resiliency while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It includes practices that naturally protect the soil with composts, reduced or zero till farming and carefully managed use of pesticides and fertilizers.

Farming in this way helps to build a more resilient, sustainable and secure food supply. Regenerative agriculture forms a key part of Unilever’s future foods ambition, contributing to our commitment to help protect and regenerate 1.5 million hectares of land, forests and oceans by 2030. It’s also an important lever to get to net zero by 2039.

More investment in research is needed in this area to unlock the link as a critical part of food systems transformation for people and the planet.

The research paper (Opens in a pop-up window ) is published in Frontiers in Nutrition.It’s entitled:"Do agronomic approaches aligned to regenerative agriculture improve the micronutrient concentrations of edible portions of crops? A scoping review of evidence."

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