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Regenerative ag finds a corporate champion

General Mills supports regenerative agriculture, but says it’s not about something to slap on its label

[UPDATED: Feb. 3, 2020] When the topic of who might drive a regenerative agriculture push comes up, one name keeps cropping up: General Mills.

The Minnesota-based producer of packaged consumer goods first staked out its claim to this turf by promising in 2015 to source its top 10 ingredients sustainably by 2020. As it nears the end of that successful mandate, it’s seen to be moving into the regenerative agriculture space.

But company representatives say this isn’t the overture to creating a ‘product claim’ to drive sales. Instead, it’s an attempt to build on those efforts and close any gaps that have become apparent, says Steven Rosenzweig, a soil scientist who works for General Mills.

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“Looking ahead and taking stock of where we’ve come over the last number of years, we’ve realized that the advancements in efficiency have been really helpful and it’s allowed farmers to become more profitable in a lot of cases,” he said.

“But we’re seeing trends in soil loss and biodiversity loss and in the agricultural economy that aren’t addressed by those gains and efficiency… we really actually have to focus on regenerating these natural resources and the agricultural economy.”

*The company says it will promote regenerative agriculture on a million acres by 2030.

In 2018, the company developed regenerative metrics for soil health, while assessment of biodiversity and economic resilience are still in the works, and launched a self-assessment scorecard for producers. The company’s 2019 Global Responsibility Report also highlighted regenerative agriculture.

Last year, the company took its regenerative efforts to the Canadian Prairies. General Mills held two soil health academies in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in February 2019. The company then selected 45 of those attendees to receive three years of holistic management coaching to institute regenerative agriculture on their farms.

“It’s gone really well so far,” Rosenzweig said, despite a tight timeline between selection and the next growing season. “We saw a lot of cover cropping and grazing happening this fall, so there’s been some good kind of first experimentation with some new practices among the farmers in the group and I think there’s been a lot of success in that regard.”

The program has also fostered networks between those 45 farmers, Rosenzweig said, leading to producers joining forces to integrate livestock and share knowledge.

With only one year under its belt, it is too soon to measure any of the impacts those practices might have had. The program has collected baseline soil samples, insect inventories and bird surveys from participating farms so that changes can be tracked over the next three years.

Despite that work, Rosenzweig says a regenerative claim for its ingredients is not on the company’s short-term radar.

“Some of the farmers in the program don’t even grow oats, so it’s not necessarily about the ingredient itself,” he said. “It’s really about getting these principles on the landscapes.”

He says consumers are still not familiar with the concept or purported benefits of regenerative agriculture.

*UPDATE: A reference to a partnership with the Savory Institute was removed.

About the author

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Alexis Stockford

Alexis Stockford is a journalist and photographer with the Manitoba Co-operator. She previously reported with the Morden Times and was news editor of  campus newspaper, The Omega, at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She grew up on a mixed farm near Miami, Man.

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