Sustainability And Tradition Guide General Mills' Farming Future

Written by Ariel Knoebel, Forbes

The hottest innovations in farming right now are all about slow transitions. Carla Vernón, president of General Mills natural and organic operating unit, discussed her company’s commitment to investing in traditional farming methods at the Fortune Global Forum in Toronto last week. “If we mean to stay in the food business at General Mills, then this problem that we’re facing, that we have been a participant in,” Vernón said, while on a panel discussing climate change, food security, and the food supply; “we realize now, we have to make positive contributions.” So, the company is looking to the past for inspiration on how to reduce their ecological footprint.

General Mills entered an agreement last Spring with Gunsmoke Farms in South Dakota to transition 34,000 acres of farmland into certified organic land by 2020. The company is already the third largest producer of natural and organic foods in the U.S. Once transitioned, this will be one of the largest contiguous stretches of organic agriculture in the country. In addition to expanding organic acreage, they are working to incorporate “throwback” farming methods, such as utilizing cover crops, creating natural pollinator habitats, planting perennial wild grains to restore soil health, and recommitting to other regenerative farming practices

Lowering their ecological footprint not only means better environmental stewardship, but good business for companies such as General Mills. According to Nielsen, 66% of global respondents will pay a premium for sustainable goods, a number that has continued to increase over the past four years. Percentages only grow when younger consumers' responses are isolated, with millennials being the most willing (73%) to pay extra for brands with a commitment to sustainability. “Commitment to social and environmental responsibility is surpassing some of the more traditional influences for many consumers. Consumer-goods’ brands that fail to take this into account will likely fall behind,” says Grace Farraj, senior vice president, Public Development & Sustainability at Nielsen. In this case, what is good for the planet is also good for the bottom line.

General Mills decision to recommit to traditional and regenerative farming practices doesn’t come without innovation, however. “We consider this form of returning to some of our old practices a form of innovation we’re very excited about,” Vernón argues. In implementing old practices, they are partnering with organizations to create new systems and utilize modern data. For instance, they have created a Regenerative Agriculture Scorecard to help standardize regenerative practices and quantify measurable results from their implementation.

This marriage of tradition and innovation speaks to the mission of the 152 year old company; to nourish lives, communities, and the future. “We have a self interest in making sure that the food system is more stable, and that the communities and the farming communities that we collaborate with are also more stable and thriving.” Vernón stated during the Forum, “we also know that we only succeed if our communities are doing well.” General Mills is recommitting to the health of these communities from the ground up, by nourishing the soil in which they are rooted

Originally published by Forbes on Oct. 29, 2018