General Mills promotes focus on soil health

The food company asks farmers to emphasize diverse crop rotations, minimal tillage and keeping soil covered in plants

People who eat Honey Nut Cheerios probably aren’t thinking about the health of agricultural soils as they stare at the cheerful bee on the cereal box.

And moms who put granola bars in their daughters’ lunches probably haven’t heard of regenerative agriculture.

The public may not care about such things, but healthy soil and regenerative agriculture are priorities at General Mills.

“For mainstream consumers … soil health, regenerative ag, those are concepts that don’t mean anything to them right now,” said Tom Rabaey, senior manager of the agronomy sciences group with General Mills.

“That’s not slowing us down as a company.”

Rabaey is well known to oat growers in Western Canada. He frequently travels to Manitoba and Saskatchewan to meet with farmers who produce oats for Generals Mills, which is the company behind Cheerios and Nature Valley granola bars.

Part of the General Mills website is dedicated to regenerative agriculture, a farming philosophy that includes diverse crop rotations, minimal tillage and keeping the soil covered with plants.

“We recognize that agriculture contributes to some of our most pressing sustainability challenges, and we believe that the most promising solutions start with healthy soil,” the website says.

“We are on a journey to bring soil back to life through regenerative agriculture practices.”

Most food companies have an organic division because organic food prices are higher and profit margins are fatter.

However, there isn’t a price premium for wheat or oats grown on a regenerative farm.

So why does General Mills care about healthy agricultural soil?

There are three main reasons, Rabaey said:

  • resilience of supply for oats, wheat and other crops
  • greenhouse gas footprint from producing such crops
  • farmer profitability

General Mills buys most of its oats from three regions in the northern Plains: southern Manitoba, central North Dakota and northeastern Saskatchewan. If one of those areas had a drought or a different production issue, General Mills could be short on oats.

“We feel improving soil health can help reduce … those large variable swings in supply,” said Rabaey, who lives in Mankato, Minnesota.

General Mills is also thinking about its supply of other ingredients, including wheat, sugar beets, corn and milk.

The company has committed to sustainably sourcing 100 percent of its 10 key ingredients by 2020.

Regenerative agriculture can help with that commitment.

“We have greenhouse gas goals … (and ) a fair chunk of that greenhouse gas resides in that farm space … fertilizer use, tillage, transportation to the grain elevator,” Rabaey said.

“We feel improving soil health, putting carbon back into the soil, that can reduce that footprint.”

General Mills also wants its suppliers to be profitable. Rabaey and others believe improvements in soil health can enhance the bottom line. If the soil is more productive, farmers are less dependent on crop inputs.

To accomplish some of its soil health goals, General Mills has developed a regenerative agriculture score card. It’s a list of 19 practices, such as cover cropping, diverse rotations and fertilizer use.

Rabaey emphasized the score card is not a checklist.

“It’s not something we’re taking to grain elevators and taking to farmers and saying, ‘pass this test and you can sell to General Mills.’ That’s not what (this) is all about.”

Instead, General Mills is hoping producers use it to gauge how they’re doing when it comes to regenerative practices.

David Montgomery, a soil expert and University of Washington professor, has said regenerative agriculture should avoid the same path as organic, where there are product claims for a set of farming practices.

This is about millions of acres rather than niche products for a few thousand people in San Francisco who care deeply about soil health.

“The biggest potential for transforming modern agriculture is to turn what we now have, as conventional agriculture, into regenerative agriculture,” Montgomery says.

Rabaey agreed, saying all producers can benefit from improved soil health.

“We want to get to the point where growers are adopting those practices and are actually showing improvement in their farming operations.”

To push regenerative ag forward in Western Canada, General Mills is hoping to partner with growers on a pilot project. The company said it would provide the consultants and expertise so that producers can test out different methods to improve soil health.

“Just get some growers in there and see how it works for them.”

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