For the Love of Dirt: General Mills Invests in Soil Health
For most of us, dirt is little more than an inconvenience. It ruins our shoes, musses our cars and seems omnipresent on our hardwood floors. Rarely do we appreciate dirt for what it really is—the foundation of all life on Earth.
More than 95 percent of the food we eat depends on a mere 6 inches of topsoil. Soil not only provides us food, but it also purifies our water and acts as a natural carbon sink.
The symbiotic relationship between soil and natural ecosystems allowed humanity to thrive for thousands of years, but we have the power to disrupt these processes—and we are. Research suggests we've already depleted around 70 percent of the world's topsoil, and soil degradation associated with large-scale farming has released 50 to 80 percent of the carbon that was once stored in soil into the atmosphere.
With the global population set to surpass 9.5 billion people by 2050, we must drastically rethink how we manage our land in a way that preserves and restores the soil, Jeffrey L. Harmening, chairman and CEO of General Mills, told CR Magazine.
“Healthy soil practices combat climate change, improve water management and quality, and increase biodiversity,” Harmening explained. “They are the cornerstone of life, yet according to The Nature Conservancy, they are increasingly rare with less than 10 percent of U.S. soils managed optimally today. That’s why we’re helping farmers grow healthy, clean soil—because that’s where a healthy planet starts.”
General Mills is committed to advancing regenerative agriculture practices on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030. In partnership with organizations like The Nature Conservancy and Understanding Ag, the company trains farmers to use soil health practices that increase the resiliency of cropland and boost farm profitability.
The first training programs will focus on North American farms where General Mills sources ingredients for iconic brands like Cheerios, as well as natural and organic labels such as Annie’s and Cascadian Farm. “Working with our suppliers and farmers to incorporate practices that protect and restore farmland is critical,” Harmening told us. “Investing in this education allows for us to both support a healthy planet and the livelihood of farmers around the globe.”
General Mills and its partners are already in the process of converting 34,000 acres in South Dakota from conventional to certified organic farmland. When completed next year, this will be one of the largest contiguous organic farms in the U.S. and will serve as a living laboratory to train farmers on regenerative practices, as well as grow wheat for Annie’s-branded food products.
“We can’t sell products if we don’t have healthy soil to grow our ingredients, so our business requires—and our consumers require —sustainably-minded work to protect our planet,” Harmening told us.
The company also collaborated with groups like the Soil Health Institute, the Soil Health Partnership and The Nature Conservancy to develop a roadmap for adopting soil health practices on more than half of U.S. cropland over the next six years. Research indicates that efforts like these will pay dividends: Restoring healthy soils in the U.S. could help deliver up to $74 billion in water and climate benefits annually —and store up to 10 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
General Mills’ work in sustainable agriculture is also central to its goal to reduce value chain emissions by 28 percent by 2025. “More than two-thirds of our greenhouse gas emissions occur outside of our operations, primarily in agriculture, so that is where we have chosen to focus,” Harmening explained.
The company cut its GHG footprint by 13 percent between 2010 and 2018, while sales increased by 7 percent over the same time period. Continuing to decouple emissions from business growth will be difficult. But Harmening said he’s confident General Mills can make it happen—and he’s convinced doing so is the only way for the business to thrive.
“Growing our business and doing it in a way that reduces our environmental impact go hand-in-hand,” he told us. “I don’t think you can do one without the other, at least not for very long.”