General Mills says consumers drive regenerative ag focus

Large corporations are focusing on regenerative agriculture because consumers think they should, according to Jay Watson from General Mills.

He told the Soil Health Institute virtual conference in late July that research from the Washington-based Hartman Group has shown this to be the case.

Consumers were asked who bears responsibility for making the world more sustainable.

“Consumers are shifting this responsibility to large companies from governments,” said Watson. “Some consumers see large food companies, and large companies in general, being part of the challenge or problem, so they’re pushing us to be part of the solution.”

Watson leads the company’s sustainability and regenerative agriculture efforts. General Mills has made several commitments toward sustainability in the last few years, including sourcing sustainable ingredients. Watson said it became apparent that there was work to be done upstream, at the farm level, as the company examined its own efforts.

Last year, General Mills committed to establishing regenerative agriculture on one million acres by 2030. It launched a regenerative oats pilot project, with 45 farmers in North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba taking part in the three-year program.

In January, it announced a pilot program with Kansas wheat farmers in the Cheney Reservoir watershed to improve water quality and soil health in the region. Another project involves a regenerative dairy program in Michigan.

“We want to accelerate farmer adoption and we’re figuring out ways we can do that as a downstream food company, not really being experts in agriculture or conservation,” Watson said.

Working with organizations like the SHI to measure the environmental and economic impacts of regenerative agriculture is part of the company’s plan.

He said the company defines regenerative agriculture as a holistic, principles-based approach to farming and ranching that strives to strengthen ecosystems and community resilience.

Farmer profitability is a key piece to that, Watson said, noting that it is as important as rebuilding ecosystem function. He said the company is looking at how producers can be rewarded for their services to society.

General Mills has a large natural and organic business and is building on its experience in that market when it comes to sourcing ingredients produced through regenerative agriculture.

Watson described it as a “similar opportunity to leverage our scale as a force for good.”

He said technical assistance for farmers has emerged as a critical component for adoption of regenerative practices.

“We hear from so many producers that they go to a conference, they go to a field day, they’re energized, they’re revved up and they’re just not exactly too sure how to apply it on their operation,” he said. “We’ve made significant investments into training and education.”

Building community so that farmers can learn from each other is also something the company wants to encourage.

During discussion after his presentation, Watson was asked where pesticides and herbicides fit into the company’s regenerative agriculture plan.

“We’ve seen the light, I guess, and just realized that these are living ecosystems and we have an opportunity to regenerate the function of these ecosystems,” he said.

Pests and disease are part of that function, but how they are dealt with could change.

“We’re doing research in some of our pilots to understand functional biodiversity,” he said.

He also said the company is applying regenerative agriculture across both its organic and conventional businesses.

“If we think about something like pesticides or disturbance in general, we can say there’s organic producers that have an opportunity to reduce mechanical disturbance…and for some conventional producers there’s an opportunity to reduce chemical disturbance.”

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