General Mills has a plan to regenerate 1 million acres of farmland

Photo by  Phil Hearing  on  Unsplash

Written by EILLIE ANZILOTTI, Fast Company

In 2014, the United Nations issued a warning to farmers: If they don’t change their agricultural practices, most of the soil they rely on to sustain their livelihoods will disappear within 60 years. Industrial-scale agricultural practices lean on polluting machinery and chemicals, which contaminate farmland. Insistence on monoculture–growing a single crop on the same patch of land–saps the soil of nutrients that more diverse crops deliver. And aggressive tilling breaks down soil structure and makes it harder for healthy land to regenerate.

As the global population continues to grow, healthy farmland is critical. But in order to meet demands for food without damaging the environment, the whole industry needs to take a different approach.

That could look something like regenerative agriculture: a method of farming that’s slowly gaining popularity as a way for farmers to replenish their land and maintain their businesses. General Mills, one of the largest food companies in the U.S., has been vocal about its support for regenerative agriculture for several years, and is now committing to bringing the practice to 1 million acres of farmland by 2030.

“In sustainability work, it’s often challenging to find anything that lifts more than one or two boats at a time,” says Jerry Lynch, General Mills’s chief sustainability officer. “This lifts so many boats: water quality, soil health, reduced carbon footprint, increased biodiversity, and farmer profitability and economic resilience.”

General Mills will work with the farmers it sources from to ensure that they’re growing crops via regenerative methods, Lynch says. These methods include growing cover crops after the harvest instead of allowing the soil to sit unprotected. Cover crops help trap carbon in the ground and encourage nutrient development in the soil, but they’re used on less than 2% of cropland in the U.S. today. Adding livestock is also important, as manure delivers nutrients to the soil. And another factor, Lynch says, is encouraging farmers to grow a wider range of crops, as opposed to the one or two that many focus on, which increases the nutrient diversity in soil. Regenerative agriculture also calls for reduced dependence on pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

Several brands under the General Mills umbrella are already working directly with farmers that use regenerative practices. Annie’s, for instance, introduced two limited-edition products last year–a version of boxed mac and cheese, and bunny-shaped cookies–made from wheat and oats grown regeneratively on farms in Montana. And EPIC Provisions, a smaller brand that uses natural, high-quality meats and produce, sources from livestock producers who raise animals on regenerative farms. Last year, EPIC’s Sweet & Spicy Sriracha Beef Bites became the first packaged product to earn the Ecological Outcome Verification seal: a designation confirming a products’ environmental benefits created by the Savory Institute, which advocates for regenerative farming.

Through its commitment to establishing regenerative practices on 1 million acres, General Mills aims to get more farmers working along these lines, and more of their brands sourcing from them.General Mills is making a $650,000 grant to the nonprofit Kiss the Ground, which will carry out training programs in agricultural communities like the Northern Plains, where farmers can learn to integrate regenerative practices and measure outcomes like soil health and biodiversity. (Last year, General Mills rolled out a Regenerative Agriculture Self-Assessment tool that farmers can use to analyze their practices and ecological outcomes.)

In a country where around 40% of the land mass, or around 915 million acres, is classified as farmland, the 1 million that General Mills wants to see converted to regenerative land may not seem significant. But to Lynch, it’s all about setting the example and proving that regenerative practices can yield both strong crops and good financial returns for farmers, who may find that the increased diversity and health of their products is good for business. “Even more so, we hope lots of people join us: We welcome everyone to come on board because the more ubiquitous this is in agriculture, the better our food system is,” Lynch says.

Originally published by Fast Company on March 4, 2019