General Mills Advances Regenerative Practices on 1 Million Acres of Farmland by 2030

By Tom Piekarski, with files and research by Christine Schmalz

Some Canadian farmers are being offered soil health testing and coaching as part of General Mills’ commitment to regenerative agriculture. Photo source: Unsplash

As the manufacturer of some of North America’s best-known food brands, General Mills is becoming a leader in corporate sustainability by committing to regenerative agricultural practices on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030. As part of our ongoing Regenerative Programs and Incentives Feasibility Study, OCO is exploring how General Mills is incentivizing sustainable agricultural practices. Read ahead as we break down what General Mills is doing to promote regenerative practices, how they are collaborating with farmers to regenerate land, and what members of Ontario’s agricultural sector can learn from General Mills’ step into the regenerative world.

What is General Mills’ commitment to regenerative agriculture?

General Mills is no stranger to sustainable agricultural practices. The corporation is the third largest organic producer in the United States and has been growing organic brands such as Annie’s, Cascadian Farm, Lärabar and Liberté under its corporate umbrella for several years. However, a 2019 commitment to bringing more than 20% of its North American sourcing footprint under regenerative practices encourages General Mills to look for alternative ways to increase the resilience of both organic and conventional operations. 

General Mills defines regenerative agriculture as any method of farming that “protects and intentionally enhances natural resources and farming communities.” While the corporation is quick to highlight that regenerative agriculture is not a one-size-fits-all approach, integration of livestock, maximization of crop diversity, prioritization of soil coverage, and the maintenance of a living root year-round are the core principles that General Mills is promoting as part of their regenerative practices.

General Mills’ six core principles of regenerative agriculture. Photo source: General Mills

General Mills is proposing to measure the success of its work with the following five categories:

  1. Economic resilience;
  2. Soil health;
  3. Water;
  4. Above-ground biodiversity; and
  5. Cow and herd well-being

Because regenerative agriculture is an outcomes-based approach, assessing these cumulative impacts on the land, natural systems, and business following production is key.

How is General Mills collaborating with farmers to integrate regenerative practices?

General Mills’ commitment to regenerative agriculture starts with the support the corporation provides its farmers. In partnership with Understanding Ag, General Mills has funded and administered three pilot programs across the United States and Canada. All three are set to unfold over three year periods beginning in 2019-20 and include such supports as “one-on-one coaching and technical assistance…, customized plans for implementation in their operations, soil health testing, farmer networking communities and biodiversity and economic assessments to demonstrate impact on outcomes over time.”

Each pilot program includes components based on regional characteristics, commodity-specific realities, and the needs of individual farming operations. For example, the Southern Plains Wheat Pilot comprises 24 wheat growers in the Southern Plains of Kansas’ Cheney Reservoir Watershed. The focus of this pilot is to better understand the effects of regenerative agricultural practices on water quality.

Blue and green dots representing farms receiving 1-on-1 regenerative coaching and doing on-farm soil health experiments, respectively. Photo source: General Mills

Because the regenerative approach is relatively new and appropriate metrics are still evolving, General Mills has invested in enhancing tools to effectively quantify environmental progress at the farm level. The General Mills Regenerative Agriculture Self-Assessment is a digital self-led tool available to all farmers and companies with agricultural supply chains. It was designed to help growers understand regenerative agriculture and assess their practices against key principles. The tool also doubles as a tracking mechanism for General Mills to ensure their goal of 1 million acres is achieved.

What can members of Ontario’s organic value chain learn from General Mills’ regenerative practices?

The appearance of regenerative pilot projects in Western Canada gives hope to Ontario farmers looking for help integrating regenerative agricultural practices. Initiatives that increase communication and knowledge sharing between organic farmers through Facebook groups, for instance, could be adopted as best practice even without the backing of a corporation. Additionally, the realization by General Mills that successfully reducing its greenhouse gas emissions requires helping its farmers implement more climate-friendly practices provides an example for larger members of Ontario’s value chain in how they can make an impact.

However useful such initiatives could be in Ontario, concerns have been raised over the consolidation of regenerative resources among a small group of corporations. Critics are especially worried that the scale and power imbalance between a corporation like General Mills and the local producers it enlists could lead to disproportionate economic gains for General Mills and the “greenwashing” of production methods that favor its business practices above the health of local supply chains. The Organic Council of Ontario remains committed to advocating for fairness for all members of the organic value chain and for a balanced approach to the economic gains of sustainable agricultural practices.

For those interested in participating in OCO’s ongoing Regenerative Programs and Incentives Feasibility Study please email: meg@organiccouncil.ca. This project is funded through the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

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