Large food companies are increasingly worried about the broad impact they have on the environment. Now their programs are reaching down to the farm level, although those influences are mostly in early stages.
American farmers are at the vanguard of this trend, with companies like General Mills aiming to influence a million acres by 2030.
Why it matters: Farmers will incur costs and have less flexibility to pass costs along if food companies set more rigid production requirements for farmers without increasing payments.
General Mills is one of the furthest along in developing such programs, investing $4 million to develop standards for farmers since 2014.
In early March, General Mills announced its initiative to have one million acres of farmland within the United States practicing regenerative agriculture — including an increase in cover crop use, no-till practices and a more perennial-based system to help lower greenhouse gas emissions.
The company wants to reduce the GHG emissions by 28 per cent across its value chain by 2025. It is almost halfway there already as its GHG emissions dropped 13 per cent from 2010 to 2018.
It plans to partner with organic and conventional farmers, suppliers and farm advisers in key growing regions.
“We have been feeding families for more than 150 years and we need a strong planet to enable us to feed families for the next 150 years,” says Jeff Harmening, chair and chief executive officer of General Mills.
For large companies to quantify their environmental impact, they must be able to measure that impact, and prove the can influence it over many products and acres.
“The issue we have is that it matters what farmers do, on a large scale,” says Dr. Claudia Wrangler-Riddle, professor in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph. “We may have some really innovative farmers that are doing great things on their land, but if that only applies to five per cent of the area, it’s not going to have a huge impact. We need to reach the large producers and a company that sources their materials from a very vast number of growers really has the power to make a large impact.”
Simon Sygomi, chair of the Arrell Institute at the University of Guelph says it’s a risk management approach for the companies and also involves coordination along the supply chain.
“The margins they make on their products are very small. You can look at it as almost a risk management initiative in the case of governments put taxes on farming for environmental sustainability,” he says.
“They see the two angles of being good citizens and helping out members of their supply chain and looking at the longterm sustainability taxes that might come in.
However, the question of whether or not food production companies can provide guidance or incentives to the farm level that actually work, remains to be seen.
“They are so big and diversified that they can spend tens of millions of dollars on bringing people into their organization that are skilled at agronomic processes to help out and can get the skill set of people that they need,” says Sygomi.
There are other questions yet to be answered as food companies embark on unprecedented reach to the farm level, including just what is the definition of regenerative agriculture, whether or not farmers will be paid to change their practices and if the productivity of North American farms can be sustained if there are changes imposed over large acreages, not driven by economics.
Groups that advocate for more healthy soil production practices support initiatives like that of General Mills.
“Given the enormous impact food systems have on greenhouse gas emissions as well as the toll climate change is expected to take on agriculture it is crucial that food companies consider the long-term sustainability of the farms on which they rely,” says Danielle Fugere president of As You Sow, an American group that uses shareholder pressure to advocate for corporate change.
What is regenerative agriculture?
Regenerative agriculture refers to practices designed to help build soil organic matter, restore degraded soil biodiversity, enrich soil and improve watersheds.
There remains lots of debate over an exact definition The term regenerative gained popularity during the 1980s when soil erosion became a large concern. As the use of no-till practices increased, soils improved. But they are again dwindling, says Wagner-Riddle at the University of Guelph.
The idea is to use regenerative practices that are sustainable environmentally and economically, she says. For example, producers can increase their use of perennials or add cover crops for better soil health, while decreasing phosphorus and nitrogen loss, leading to economic gains for the grower.
Since 2015, General Mills has invested more than $4 million to advance its soil health initiatives. Those include:
- The development of the Soil Health Roadmap in partnership with The Nature Conservancy to outline key steps to achieve widespread adoption of soil health systems on more than 50 per cent of U.S cropland;
- The development of a regenerative agriculture self-assessment tool to help famers understand how their practices influence soil health biodiversity and economic resilience;
- A strategic sourcing agreement with a farm in South Dakota to convert 34,000 acres of conventional farmland to certified organic acreage using regenerative agriculture practices, by 2020.