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Daily News Blog

21
Mar

General Mills Commits to Large Acreage of Regenerative Agriculture, Short of Organic

(Beyond Pesticides, March 21, 2019) Corporate food giant General Mills has thrown some weight behind regenerative agriculture, committing to converting one million acres of farmland to regenerative practices by 2030. Some – but not all – of the initiative involves organic land management.

Regenerative agriculture is a term with a range of interpretations, but the key element is improving soil health through carbon sequestration. Robert Rodale, one of the early proponents of organic agriculture and a major publisher, coined the name to characterize a process that moves beyond sustainable maintenance and into improvement of resources. This methodology is gaining traction in the farming world because it is economically beneficial to farmers and promotes environmental remediation. A 2018 study shows that ecologically-based farming systems have fewer pests and generate higher profits than their conventional counterparts.

“Practitioners who have done this the longest point to the fact that in extreme years, their farms will do better than those who do not,” says Jerry Lynch, General Mills’ chief sustainability officer, “After some transition time, depending on their location and cropping system, farmers are saving a lot of money because they’re using fewer inputs.”

In their press release, General Mills lays out three foci within their definition of regenerative agriculture:

  1. Healthy Soil: Carbon rich, biologically active soil plays an essential role in cleaning and storing water, supporting biodiversity and regulating the climate.
  2. Above-Ground Biodiversity: Diversity in crop varieties, grazing animals, wildlife and pollinators supports resilient ecosystems that can better withstand disease, pests and climate fluctuations.
  3. Farmer Economic Resilience: Regenerative agriculture practices can strengthen whole farm profitability and resilience over time.

General Mills is making significant investments, including grand-scale land conversions and working with training partners. They have donated $650,000 to nonprofit organization Kiss the Ground for training and coaching. Part of their million-acre effort includes converting 34,000 acres in South Dakota from conventional farm land to organic.

Agriculture contributes, by some estimates, up to 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, soil is an enormous potential area for carbon storage (a “sink”) and in fact benefits from the additional carbon structure. Healthy, carbon-rich soil stores water and erodes less, making fields more tolerant to disruptive weather such as heavy rain or drought.

There is crossover with regenerative and other agricultural movements, such as organic or no-till. In the face of “erosion” of the organic label by hydroponics and big agriculture, the Real Organic Project – a coalition of farmers and advocates – has been trying to bolster the organic label by reiterating the importance of soil in organic. “Organic Farming was defined back in its infancy as a farming method that is centered on maintaining fertile and biologically healthy soil,” states the organization’s website.

Last year, the Rodale Institute introduced a label for regenerative agriculture food using the USDA certified organic as a baseline requirement. As an add-on to the organic label, Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) involves three pillars of soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. Their definition of soil health includes no synthetic inputs (i.e. pesticides or fertilizers).

In another realm of regenerative agriculture, some no-till advocates, while focused on improving soil health and reducing inputs, find it difficult to move away from synthetics entirely. A Civil Eats article quotes no-till advocate and Arkansas farmer Adam Chappel, “You can’t quit [synthetic fertilizer and herbicides] cold-turkey,” but he notes that after a few years in the practice, “I don’t need seed treatments for my cotton anymore. I’ve taken the insecticide off my soybeans. I’m working toward getting rid of fungicide … I’m hoping that eventually my soil will be healthy enough that I can get rid of all of it all together.” Many programs that are dependent even on reduced pesticide and synthetic fertilizer use maintain a dependency on those toxic inputs because the soil biology is not fully supported by practices and amendments that grow the biomass and ultimately nutrient cycling.

The heavy involvement of General Mills might raise some eyebrows in a field generally dominated by small, even anti-establishment farmers and advocates. Addressing cynicism of investment by their corporate entity in organic, Carla Vernon, president of General Mills’ natural and organic business stated, “We feared the skepticism of General Mills would overshadow the good work of our natural and organic brands, but Big Food must be at the table if we are going to make a difference at scale.” [Of note, Beyond Pesticides recently won a legal settlement against General Mills regarding their misleading “100% Natural Oats” label on Nature Valley Granola Bars.]

General Mills has a bottom line that will be impacted indiscriminately by climate change and pollinator decline. Lynch states, “The trend is increased demand and coupled with a dwindling natural resource supply, and the pressure facing farming communities, we are concerned with that.”

Whatever the motive, industry involvement is significant in a growing movement. Robert Rodale remarked in a 1989 interview, “I don’t think the average person aspires to live in a sustained environment, they want to live in something that’s expanding and getting better, so I think the idea of regeneration is more appealing.” Beyond Pesticides looks forward to an expanding future of organic and regenerative agriculture.

Check out Beyond Pesticides’ Eating with a Conscience to share with those who don’t think beyond the dinner plate, but may be interested to know the effect of the chemicals used where food is grown on the environmental, people, and wildife.

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Sources: Successful Farming, General Mills

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