Long read

How Mondelēz is defining regenerative agriculture

By Bethan Grylls

- Last updated on GMT

French Harmony farmer, Emeric Duchesne, his wheat fields and bee hotel
French Harmony farmer, Emeric Duchesne, his wheat fields and bee hotel

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Biscuits and confectionery manufacturer Mondelēz International is expanding its regenerative wheat farming ambitions, following a successful trial. Food Manufacture reports on its visit to see the programme in action in Northern France - and questions, 'what exactly is regenerative agriculture?'

While regenerative agriculture is an old-age farming practice, steeped in history, it has no official definition.

Despite this, many in the industry are looking to encourage regenerative practices. Among them is Mondelēz International, home to biscuits such as LU Napolitain, Oreo and belVita.

What is regenerative agriculture?

The concept of ‘regenerative’ has been linked to agriculture and farming since the late 1970s, but the phrases ‘regenerative agriculture’ and ‘regenerative farming’ didn’t become mainstream until 10 years later.

Popularised by the US-based Rodale Institute, the aforementioned terms started to claim more and more margin space. Richard Harwood, director of Rodale Research Centre, notably published an international overview of Regenerative Agriculture, in which he linked its evolution to organic and biodynamic farming.

Although the Institute may have held a starring role in pushing regenerative agriculture into the industrial lexicon, such techniques were being used long before this.

Agricultural scientist, inventor and educator, Dr George Washington Carver, is considered the father of regenerative agriculture.   

We owe numerous early breakthroughs in soil health to Dr Carver in fact, who famously helped southern cotton farmers in the US restore their depleted soil. This included advocating the use of compost to reintroduce nutrients and add organic matter to the soil.

As a bonus, his work also saw the rise of the peanut. Peanuts, Dr Carver learnt, could help lock in nitrogen into the soil. This led to them not only becoming a popular rotational crop but also introduced wider society to the ample uses of this legume.  

Whilst the phrase regenerative agriculture fell out of fashion for a time, it’s made a resurgence in recent years as climate change has been pushed up the agenda. Yet the phrase still has no universally agreed definition.

The most common descriptions used for regenerative farming today are around techniques which use natural systems to restore and enhance soil health and biodiversity. 

Sustainable wheat

Regardless of its lack of legal definition, regenerative agriculture is a big focus for Mondelēz today when it comes to wheat.

Its Harmony Program, introduced in 2008, is the confectioner’s wheat-focused sustainability initiative, which aims to drive good environmental practices among its supply chain.  

A total of 73% of Mondelēz’s carbon emissions come from raw materials and while wheat represents just 3%, with cocoa and dairy taking top spots at 35% and 16% respectively, it’s also the business’s number one ingredient in its biscuits.

The programme starting small, with just a handful of French farmers, but has expanded exponentially since its launch. Today it boasts partnerships with more than 1,100 farmers and 18 millers across seven European countries.

In total, the programme sees 400,000T of wheat harvested every year, stretching across an impressive 57,000 hectares. And as many as 80% of the business’s brands in Europe carry the Harmony logo.

At an exclusive media event, Food Manufacture was shown the “encouraging”​ 2023 data, outlining the programme’s recent wins.

For example, in 2023, approximately 16m bees and 29 butterfly species were observed in Harmony fields on 1,115 partner farms across Europe – and around 1,875 hectares of melliferous fallows (fields containing plants which produce substances that can be collected by insects and turned into honey) were dedicated to biodiversity specifically.

Now, Mondelēz wants to go further.

The regenerative charter

Last year saw a new chapter of the programme kick off where it all began – in France. As many as 570 farmers took part in the Harmony Ambition Regenerative Charter, starting with a test and learn model in 2022. 

Since then, 86% of farms adhered to best practices during crop harvesting, mowing or cover crop shredding – practices that improve soil health. Moreover, there has been a 20% increase in shallow soil tillage since 2022, with 75% of the French Harmony farm plots now practising this.

This chapter of the programme is part of an increased ambition under the ‘Harmony 2030 charter’ wherein Mondelēz is widening action from individual Harmony plots to whole farms; and from pollinators to overall wildlife.

Giving further detail, Charlotte Brault, who manages the marketing and communicate side of the programme, said: “The 2030 ambition is based around regenerative agriculture – we want to restore the natural rhythm of the surrounding system, and mitigate climate change impact and reverse biodiversity loss.”

Among the farmers implementing this new ‘regenerative’ model is Emeric Duchesne.

Duchesne, whose farm is located in the Hauts-de-France region in Northern France, has been part of Harmony since 2014. Alongside wheat, he grows sugar beet, oilseed and barley.

Emeric Duchesne is a farmer in Northern France growing wheat (his land pictured) under the Harmony programme's regenerative farming guidelines

In line with the programme, he has been diversifying crop rotation, optimising the use of nitrogen fertilisers, improving soil cover between crop and reducing soil tillage. His farm also takes part in Mondelēz’s ‘In Harmony with Bees’ initiative that safeguards wild bees.

On the farm is a ‘bee hotel’ – one of 32 Mondelēz International insect-friendly hotels in Europe. Weighing 55kg each, a ‘bee hotel’ has more than 6,000 holes, each with a different material to attract diverse types of pollinators to provide bees with a safe space to reproduce.

Duchesne explained that his farm, which he took over from his father, was built on sustainable practices. However, the Harmony Program was a way to improve things further, as he said: “If you want to last, you have to do it the proper way.”

Gentle guidance

One of the most challenging parts of any kind of ‘outsider’ programme that comes along to ‘improve things’, is the threat of being seen as some sort of authoritarian ruler.

Whilst most people will agree that they want to ‘do good’, marching in and telling someone (particularly if they’ve done the job for years) that what they’re doing is all wrong, probably won’t get you very far.

As such, mindful and respectful collaboration is key – as well as a good incentive, which in this case is provided in the form of a premium paid to the farmers.

Speaking about his experience with the programme, Duchesne congratulated Mondelēz on its discussive approach: “I hate when people tell me to do something. I am very open-minded…but why don’t we discuss it.”

Collaboration has been the heart of the Harmony Program since its inception, with the idea sparked by a Mondelēz comment box suggestion.

And whilst it wasn’t a farmer that triggered the initial thought, Mondelēz said they have been – and continue to be – alongside NGOs, integral in the programme’s development.

“The programme has been co-created from the start. At Mondelēz we are not experts at farming. The farmers are the experts,”​ Guillaume Sauzay, Harmony’s programme lead told Food Manufacture.

As Mondelēz does not buy directly from the farmers, Sauzay explained that setting up a close-knit community with the farmers did ​take effort’.

“It was a challenge to set it up at the start of the Harmony Program but now we have many years of doing it. All the data we gather has become a habit,” ​he said.

“The biggest win is the partnerships we have built with the farmers. We are still very close to them despite the scale we have,”​ added Brault. “We keep a strong proximity with France because this is where it started. Around half of our farmers are based here.”

The close links with these French farmers is also very useful for pilot programmes, Brault noted, and provide a perfect test bed to extrapolate the “right learnings”​ to carry forward and bring to other areas.    

“This is why we decided to launch the new 2030 ambition in France for the regenerative agriculture charter.”

Tailor made

The plan is now to roll out the charter to all seven countries over the next few years, Brault continued. But she was also quick to note that the charter will still be tailored to the countries and the farmers.

“The conditions across Europe are very different – which is why we do it step by step.

“Mondelēz is going to work with each country, each cooperative, each farmer to ensure that the new charter works for them.”

To support farmers in their regenerative journey, Mondelēz has also created the Harmony Academy which provides farmers with the knowledge and skills to adopt and understand regenerative agriculture practices.

Duchesne said the knowledge sharing via the app has been an extremely useful tool – and he has previously had to learn the hard way, accidentally growing a hedge that attracted bugs which brought in ‘yellow disease’ for example.

Alongside wheat, Emeric Duchesne also grows sugar beet

The app, alongside NGO support, he believes will help prevent similar issues occurring in the future.

Technology has also been key in helping Duchesne achieve the asks of the Harmony Program. One example he gave were GPS-enabled tractors, which enables the vehicles to travel in a precise straight line. As he explained: a human can drive a tractor, but they won’t stay straight! This allows the tractor to be more exact and efficient in its work.

Another recent addition to expand and improve upon the work of Harmony is its dedicated council – an independent panel of scientific experts which advise on initiatives and challenges the business to try new approaches.

The group has had an initial meeting since being established and will be meeting again in Poland later this month to discuss the way the programme can measure its progress.

As Sauzay explained, the aim is to be able to measure, with greater precision, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions as well as the business’s impact on biodiversity.

“We already do it, but we need to push it further,”​ he contended.

A definition on the horizon?

Speaking on the topic of regenerative agriculture, Sauzay added that whilst there is no definitive definition, some members of the council are working on standards that can apply to everyone.

He told Food Manufacture that while the business wants to be an example to others, it isn’t looking to set a standardise benchmark across the EU. He does believe one will come however – and of course, it will extend far beyond wheat!

The idea of new regulations on regenerative farming didn’t come as a worry either, despite the business pursing its own definition in the meantime.

“We have developed the definition of regenerative agriculture with the council and we look at what others are doing. So when there is a standard, it will be close to the common practices. I am not at all afraid it will disrupt anything, it might be that we need to tweak a KPI,” ​he concluded.

Like a lot of practices in food, whether it’s definitions around ultra processed, carbon labels or regenerative farming, we’re still a way off global harmonious practice, but it sounds like Harmony is making progress in the meantime.  


  1. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0030727021998063?icid=int.sj-abstract.similar-articles.3

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