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Big Food turning to regenerative agriculture to meet sustainability goals

Big Food turning to regenerative agriculture to meet sustainability goals

Food manufacturers take commodities harvested on millions of acres around the world and put them into the products they sell. Now, a growing number of companies are looking to give back to the land through regenerative agriculture in an effort to meet consumer demand for more environmentally friendly practices.

General Mills recently partnered with farmers and suppliers to implement these sustainable practices on 1 million acres of soil for oats, wheat, corn, dairy feed and sugar beets by 2030.

The announcement comes as shoppers care about sustainability now more than ever, according to a survey from Nielsen. Nearly half of U.S. consumers are likely to change what they buy depending on the level of the brand's commitment to the environment. The growth is unlikely to abate anytime soon, with the data analytics firm predicting people will spend up to $150 billion on sustainable products by 2021.

"It's a big deal for food companies because we make food that relies on agriculture. So when we think about what we need to be doing, and the fact that so much of the landscape is actually being degraded right now, it's an opportunity to do it differently," Shauna Sadowski, head of sustainability for natural and organics at General Mills, told Food Dive. "And that's what regenerative agriculture is about. It's about looking at how we not only do more with less or do less bad, but to actually restore and regenerate."

General Mills isn't the first or the only company with this idea. Scores of well-known food companies, such as Hormel Foods and Danone North America​, are promising to focus on more sustainable practices by committing finances and acreage to regenerative agriculture.

This method of farming, which is designed to protect natural resources by capturing carbon from the air and storing it in the soil, comes amid predictions over the negative impact that climate change will have on the global food supply.

"We need to be thinking bigger when we think about the footprint of agriculture," Sadowski said. "It's great to see food companies engaging across the board because we need everyone."

Food executives said practices such as regenerative agriculture both restore the consumer's faith in brands while helping restore the ground. At the same time, critics of these pledges said they mostly appeal to consumers on a surface level and don't do enough to really make a difference.

Pledging money and land
Along with the promise of land, General Mills is pledging $650,000 to Kiss the Ground — a nonprofit organization advocating for environmental practices — to educate farmers on making the land more resilient to inclement conditions, increasing profits and lowering costs with soil health methods.

"Efforts to improve soil health and enrich biodiversity are critical to addressing climate change and other environmental challenges," Larry Clemens, director of The Nature Conservancy's North America agriculture program, said in a statement when the goal was announced in March.

General Mills has been piloting its regenerative agricultural initiatives with farmers during the past year. Sadowski said the regenerative agricultural movement is being led by farmers, and using them to spread the word can be a catalyst to expedite adoption of the practice across the food industry.

But other companies have given lump sums to the cause already. Last year, milk and yogurt producer Danone North America committed up to $6 million for regenerative agriculture and soil health research.

Deanna Bratter, senior director of public benefit and sustainable development at Danone North America, told Food Dive the company just finished its first year of on-ground, on-farm programs on more than 26,000 acres. The manufacturer of Silk, Oikos and Activia is planning to double that amount in the next few years.

"This movement around regenerative agriculture is one of the first big efforts to actually not just reduce the emissions we're creating, but to draw down emissions that already exist," Bratter said. "I think it's incredibly powerful as a sustainability professional and as a company focused on sustainability that we're now implementing solutions not just to do less bad, but to really transform the trajectory that we're on when it comes to climate change."

Measuring the goals
As companies make big pledges, there is some concern over whether enough is being done to hold them accountable and track the progress of these commitments. Environmental groups and analysts claim they often are just marketing tactics used to attract consumers.

"Food industry pledges are not unlike a toy surprise. There is one in every box, but they always disappoint," Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, told Food Dive.

Faber said pledges, such as the one General Mills is making, are not based on a verifiable standard. He said it is important that claims like this have third parties verifying these promises. A commitment from one company could push others to make the same unverifiable claims to get ahead. The result, Faber said, is "a plethora of meaningless and downright confusing claims flooding the market place."

"We are living in a period where consumers are more and more making food choices based upon the extent to which their food choices impact the fate of the planet," Faber said. "When companies make bogus claims about the environmental benefits of their products they are robbing consumers of the ability to make choices that benefit the planet."

A recent white paper from the Rodale Institute found developing tests to measure carbon sequestration is the best chance for quantitatively showing the amount of regenerative agriculture needed to actually help the climate. The trials will find the best ideas and offer support networks for farmers who are already working on regenerative models.

"With the use of cover crops, compost, crop rotation and reduced tillage, we can actually sequester more carbon than is currently emitted, tipping the needle past 100% to reverse climate change," Mark Smallwood, executive director of Rodale Institute, said in the report.

When it comes to how General Mills is going to be tracking its goal, Sadowski said the company is working with scientists and leveraging Cornell University's comprehensive assessment of soil health — a protocol which includes looking at factors of stability in the soil and organic carbon. Her company is developing tools to measure the progress of biodiversity and the economic resilience in rural communities so that they can show farmers and consumers that they are making a difference with the method.

"We are looking at actual measurements because at the end of the day, the biggest question is: What are you doing? Are you making an impact?" she said. "We want to focus on outcomes."

For her part, Bratter said Danone North America is working with several entities, including universities and scientists, who help the company measure the quality of the soil and gauge improvements coming from its practices over time.

"When we're talking about climate change, if we don't act, it could have impacts to our supply," she said. "We know that the more we can do to create resiliency within our supply chain, the more successful our farmer partners will be."

Pressure from climate change
In recent years, sustainability pledges and business practices that help the environment have become necessary for companies to appeal to shoppers.

"Consumers are looking to support companies whose values match their own," Bratter said. "We definitely want to showcase that."

Shoppers have shown they care about sustainability more than ever before, and companies are adapting to that by calling for stronger climate policies and even developing new packaging, like edible and biodegradable film, that is more eco-friendly.

"Food is the mother of all sustainability challenges," Janet Ranganathan, the vice president for science and research at the World Resources Institute, previously told Food Dive. "We have to change how we produce and consume food, not just for environmental reasons, but because this is an existential issue for humans."

Recognizing that companies will need to follow through on the sustainable pledges, a variety of practices have come to light, from sustainable packaging and renewable energy to water conservation and farming practices. The latest method popping up seems to be regenerative agriculture.

But Milt McGiffen, agronomy and plant physiology professor and researcher at the University of California, Riverside, told Food Dive this practice isn't new in farming.

"There was always this movement in agriculture to try to put more carbon back in the soil anyway," he said. "It has certainly gotten to be a bigger movement now, but I do think clearly a lot of this goes back to global warming and what you're going to do with that carbon."

Jenni Dungait, founder of Soil Health Expert and a visiting professor at the Royal Agricultural College in the United Kingdom, told Food Dive in an email that the main driver behind why regenerative agriculture is gaining more popularity is for economic reasons. Despite innovations in plant breeding, she said crop yields have stagnated or declined so farmers are turning to these methods on their own without companies influencing them.

"Farmers are looking at the 'old' ways of farming which naturally leads them back to better soil management," she said. "Policymakers and companies on the value chain... are having to catch up, rather than driving the agenda."

Hormel Foods' Applegate brand recently launched a line of pork sausages from small farms that use regenerative agricultural practices. John Ghingo, president of Applegate, told Food Dive this product is its first foray into regenerative agriculture with more expected in the future.

Ghingo said consumers are looking for solutions that address a lot of their concerns, including their health, what they're putting into their bodies and the impact they are having on the food system around the world.

"For us as a brand that wants to be on the front edge of the industry, a very progressive and innovative force in the meat industry, we're definitely looking at environmental impacts, how we can be more sustainable, more regenerative and push in that direction," he said.

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