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General Mills believes farmers have a massive role to play in solving climate change

Healthy soil is critical in mitigating climate change. Yet, our soil is not healthy. Every year, the United States is losing 10 billion tons of fertile soil, which is far faster than nature can replenish it. When you consider 95% of the food we eat is grown in soil, this fact is alarming. 

“Agriculture is often fingered as a major culprit in climate change,” says Kevin O’Donnell, Global Director, Sourcing & Operations Sustainability at General Mills. “We strongly believe farmers have a massive role to play in being a part of the solution. In fact, we don't believe the world can adequately address climate change – and hit the targets it has set in order to avoid the most catastrophic and volatile impacts of climate change – without engaging agriculture.”

It's also why General Mills is working so hard to reduce its absolute GHG emissions by 28% across the entire value chain by 2025 (compared to 2010). 

“We were the first company across any sector to set a science-based target all the way out to what's called scope three, or our full value chain, which really begins with farmers,” O’Donnell says. “If you look at where our GHG footprint lies as a company, the biggest portion is in agricultural ingredients sourcing and transformation. It's also an absolutely critical lever for reducing climate change.”

The most promising solution to achieving its goal, General Mills believes, starts with healthy soil. It’s also where regenerative agriculture enters into the over 150-year-old company’s story.

A holistic, principles-based approach regenerative agriculture strives to strengthen ecosystem and community resilience. The farming and ranching practices pull carbon from the air and store it in the soil and can help the land be more resilient to extreme weather events. Regenerative agriculture practices also help to increase water infiltration, improve nutrient cycling, and reduce soil erosion. 

By ensuring more nutrients stay in the field rather than be lost to wind or water erosion, the benefits also translate into improved profit margins for row crop farmers. Increasing above ground biodiversity through cover crops is another way to leverage nature’s genius to address pests in ways that require lower farmer investment in synthetic inputs. Farms can also benefit from regenerative agriculture practices by incorporating adaptive grazing where possible on pastures and crop land.

Successful Farming recently had the opportunity to speak with O’Donnell ahead of a panel discussion he will be participating in on Soil Health: Can Farmers Become a Part of the Climate Change Solution? The session is part of the virtual World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit being held September 15 and 16, 2020.

SF: Sustainability is a term that has been tossed around a lot lately. Depending on who you talk to, definitions can vary widely. How does General Mills define this term?

KO: At General Mills, we are committed to sustainability sourcing our top 10 ingredients, which include oats, wheat, corn, cocoa, vanilla, dairy, palm oil, fiber packaging, sugar cane, and sugar beets. Together, they account for over 40% of our company's total direct materials purchasing. We are focused on improving the economic, environmental, and social impacts of those ingredients.

Working with an expert NGO partner a number of years ago, we did a global raw material risk and opportunity assessment to truly understand what the primary risks and opportunities were with our ingredients. While the assessment identified a variety of environmental and social sustainability risks with key ingredients, it also revealed opportunities. For that reason, we selected different sustainability strategies depending on the type of ingredient. In North American row crops and dairy, we believe eco-efficiency is the right approach. What that really means is maximizing the use of raw materials and natural resource inputs (e.g., fertilizer, pesticide, water, and energy) to drive ever increasing output. 

In addition, many people don’t realize that General Mills owns Haagen-Dazs, which is a global brand. A lot of vanilla is used in this premium ice cream. If you look at what the main sustainability risks and opportunities are in raising premium bourbon-flavored vanilla, which today only grows in Madagascar, it's primarily small-holder farmer livelihoods and making sure we have another generation willing to farm a crop that is so critical to our business. We've structured a lot of strategies and programs to work with our suppliers and NGO partners to strengthen co-op capability, build agronomic knowledge, and improve the livelihood of smaller farmers and the quality of our ingredients along the way.

In 2019, 91% of our top 10 ingredients were sustainably sourced. Our goal is 100% by the end of 2020.   

SF: How does regenerative agriculture fit into General Mills’ definition of sustainability?

KO: It's an evolution. The story began about five years ago when General Mills started to meet some of the Renaissance farmers, as we call them, who have been involved – some for as long as a quarter century – in what today is called regenerative farming. 

While we were always aware of it, we began to discover the incredible power of improved soil health to do so many of the things we were trying to accomplish with our sustainability initiatives – improve water stewardship, reduce climate impact, create stronger supply chain resiliency, increase biodiversity, all while improving farmer profitability. Over time, General Mills has been a major corporate investor in soil health including funding the Nature Conservancy reThink Soil Health Roadmap initiative. We have also invested in crops like Kernza, a perennial grain and wild relative of annual wheat, whose deep roots show promise to benefit the planet by capturing carbon from the air and storing it in the ground.

We believe soil health is the cornerstone of regenerative agriculture, which is a number of key principles, that when stacked together, really unlock and unleash some incredible power. Simply put, regenerative agriculture is about seeing the farm as more of an ecosystem and viewing common issues like pests, weeds, disease, and nutrient deficiency not just as problems to be patched with a synthetic input, but instead as a symptom of an unhealthy ecosystem. 

We see regenerative agriculture as a lasting solution to a healthier ecosystem. It’s a holistic principles-based approach, which includes six principles, that really tries to strengthen and intentionally enhance ecosystems and farming community resiliency. The six principles are:

  1. Understanding the context of your farm operation. 
  2. Minimizing soil disturbance with low tillage or ideally no tillage. 
  3. Maximizing crop diversity.
  4. Keeping the soil covered year round. Keeping skin on the soil, so to speak.
  5. Maintaining a living root in the ground year round.
  6. Integrate livestock. While we know this isn’t realistic everywhere, integrating livestock wherever possible.

One of the things we love most about regenerative agriculture is that it also has the power to improve farmer profitability. We're not saying never use synthetic inputs, but if you can reduce your investment in synthetic inputs and get Mother Nature to do that job for you, it's going to draw money straight to the farmer’s bottom line. That’s exciting.

SF: You talk about classic practices farmers can implement to build an ecosystem on the farm. Does General Mills look at the possibilities of new ag tech? 

KO: There is literally a constellation of technologies available to farmers today. Sustainability-oriented precision ag is definitely a slice of that pie. Whether it's using drones and sensors to more accurately and efficiently irrigate or apply fertilizer, we're definitely aware of it, but we’re not in the business of prescribing.

The place where technology intersects our interest the most is in measurement, because we really believe regenerative agriculture provides an on ramp for all farmers and ranchers.

We don’t simply want to have a “tick the box” approach for the practices being implemented. We want to prove the business case by actually measuring outcomes in the places that matter most. In addition to improving farmer profitability, we also want to measure increases in soil organic carbon, because we believe that climate volatility is a real issue and a real threat to our business AND that farmers can be a major part of the solution for climate change through their ability to sequester carbon in soil.   

We also want to measure things like above ground biodiversity, which again, is a key unlock for getting Mother Nature to do some of the things farmers traditionally invest a lot of money in trying to get synthetic inputs to do for pests and disease. Water stewardship is another area where we want to measure outcomes. 

Yet, if we want to scale regenerative agriculture, the cost of these outcome-based measurements needs to come down. We're collaborating with a portfolio of technology partners to get to scale faster. 

For example, we're working with companies like Dagan, which was established in 2018 as a spin-off of the research technology institution Applied GeoSolutions, on remote monitoring of things like cover crops, tillage, and crop diversity. 

We're also working with innovative partners around measuring biodiversity, so really base lining bird and insect biodiversity on an acre of farmland in our various pilots, and then tracking changes over time. It's a place where we see technology and innovation as being critical in taking regenerative agriculture to scale.

SF: How does General Mills envision farmers being a part of the climate change solution?

KO: In 2019, we made a commitment to advance regenerative agriculture on one million acres of farmland by 2030. Currently, we have three regenerative ag pilots that involve farmers. Each of the three year projects will measure the environmental and economic outcomes.

The first is a regenerative oat pilot we launched in March 2019 with 45 farmers and our supplier partners across North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba who have gone through Soil Health Academies. They are now learning how to implement the six principles mentioned earlier under the expert guidance of a General Mills sponsored coach, on more than 50,000 acres.

In January 2020, we launched a second pilot with 24 farmers growing wheat across 17,000 acres in central Kansas. In addition to our supplier partner, we have some very unique partners onboard including the Kansas Department of Health & Environment who is co-investing with us because they see regenerative agriculture as the best bet to protect the Cheney Lake Watershed, which is the source of drinking water for 400,000 Wichita residents.  

The third is a dairy pilot in Michigan in partnership with selected co-op supplier farmers. The three dairy farms in the pilot, which collectively manage more than 14,000 acres, were chosen for their proximity to General Mills’ yogurt manufacturing facility in Reed City, Michigan, which produces a variety of Yoplait and other company-branded products. 

All three efforts build off of our years of learning and experience in conventional, sustainable agriculture and building value chain engagements. We know that farmers learn best from other farmers and all three pilots leverage Understanding Ag as an expert coaching and mentoring resource.

SF: How is General Mills engaging the consumer to let them know you are sourcing materials responsibly?

KO: As you can imagine, the Holy Grail in all of this is to get our brand marketing people to understand the power of all the good work we’re doing and incorporate that into our marketing messages to differentiate our products, so we can be rewarded in the marketplace for doing the right thing. It's easy to say and really, really hard to do. While we're trying to take that message more mainstream beyond our natural and organic portfolio with brands like Cheerios and Nature Valley, it's still in the early days.

SF: How do platforms like the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit help the industry move the discussion forward around sustainability and regenerative agriculture as a solution to climate change?

KO: If there is one thing I’ve learned in my career, it’s that it doesn't matter how big a company is or how well resourced it is, no one company or entity has all the answers. Sustainability and regenerative agriculture are a team sport. Events like the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit are really critical because they bring some of the best and brightest minds from around the globe together to help unlock these solutions. Because the problems we face are so challenging, vexing, large, and begging for scale, we need all-hands-on-deck to figure it out.

SF: What barriers do you see going forward?

KO: There are a lot of barriers. Speaking pointedly to regenerative agriculture, it's really a different way of thinking and farming, and so, there are cultural barriers. Farmers’ fields look different. They don't look as neat. They get questioned by their neighbors at church and at the hardware store about why their animals are grazing through a wheat field. Beyond the cultural barriers, there are also economic barriers. Changing practices and trying new things is risky. General Mills is trying to do some of the de-risking upfront, but there is a need for more market-based incentives.

For example, the potential to sequester carbon is massive. Yet, there is no price on carbon right now. While there are some USDA incentives for improved soil health practices, we need more as well as some additional tailwind around that. That’s why General Mills is a founding member of the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium which is trying to stand-up a new soil carbon market for agriculture.

There are simple principles and practices like the ones I mentioned earlier around regenerative agriculture that require a deeper understanding of ecosystems in order to successfully implement together. It's going to take time for that mass of knowledge to coalesce into practical applications and solutions farmers can actually be successful with. It's also the reason we're so hands-on in terms of supporting upfront investment with farmers in regenerative agriculture.

When it comes to precision ag and digital ag, there are a lot of wonderful point solutions. Over time though, there will be consolidation and more holistic solutions will be offered, which are needed.

SF: What keeps you awake at night?

KO: I would say taking all of this to scale fast enough. I'm definitely not a doomsday kind of person, but I do think climate change is real. I do worry about what I see as a pretty alarming loss of topsoil over the past 100 years, which is accelerating. I see a loss of biodiversity globally, which I think is beginning to remove some really important insurance policies we have for ecosystems and supply chain resiliency. 

We have the solutions within sight, and I think the challenge now is to scale them fast enough to really make a difference. Improving profitability for farmers is where it starts.

SF: How fast is fast enough in your mind?

KO: I don't know that there is a magic answer in terms of how fast is fast enough. With climate change, there is a lot of scientific consensus around where the world needs to be by 2050, and the danger line has shifted for global warming from 2°C to 1.5°C or under to avoid the most harmful impacts from climate change.

All that being said, sustainability has gone from the janitor’s closet to headline news very quickly in the past 10 years, which is encouraging. It’s also exciting to see everyone from farmers to large companies engaged in trying to be a part of the solution.

Bio: Kevin O’Donnell

As the Global Director for Sourcing & Operations Sustainability at General Mills, Inc., Kevin O’Donnell is responsible for delivering the company’s public commitments around sustainable ingredient sourcing, advancing regenerative agriculture, greenhouse gas reduction, water stewardship, packaging recyclability as well as strategy development, engagement with external stakeholders and all technical and operational aspects of sustainability. Prior to joining General Mills in 2015, Kevin was with Nike, Inc. for over 11 years where he held regional then global sustainability leadership roles based in China, Vietnam, and the company’s Portland, Oregon-area world headquarters. Before that, he served in a variety of government, public-private partnership, and industry consulting positions.

O’Donnell lives in the Minneapolis, Minnesota area with his wife and two children.

Editor’s Note: Kevin O’Donnell, along with Karsten Neuffer, COO, Indigo Agriculture; Stefan Fürnsinn, SVP President Digital Farming, Yara; Marion Meyer, Chief Strategy & Innovation Officer, BayWa will be participating in a panel discussion on Soil Health: Can Farmers Become a Part of the Climate Change Solution? on Tuesday, September 15, 2020. The session is part of the two-day virtual World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit.

World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit 2020

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