Join the Newsletter

Stay up-to date with food+ag+climate tech and investment trends, and industry-leading news and analysis, globally.

Subscribe to receive the AFN & AgFunder
newsletter each week.

Big Food & Beverage Companies Beef up Sustainability Initiatives. Just Marketing? We’ll Find Out

March 15, 2019

General Mills, Anheuser-Busch, and Tyson have announced major sustainability initiatives in recent weeks aimed at encouraging producers to adopt different farming practices while increasing consumer education.

Sustainability in the food and agriculture context has virtually become a household term. In recent years, a number of stakeholders are morphing the dialogue surrounding the environmental impact of food production into less of a discussion about sustaining the status quo and more about looking for ways to use food cultivation to regenerate damaged landscapes.

Big food and beverage companies have hopped on the progressive farming bandwagon, but it’s not entirely clear whether the endeavors are entirely altruistic or intended to draw consumer approval and, more importantly, dollars.

Earlier this month, General Mills announced a commitment to advancing regenerative agriculture practices on one million acres of farmland by 2030. It’s going to partner with organic and conventional farmers, suppliers, and trusted farm advisors in key regions that grow important crops for the company’s products to drive the adoption of regenerative farming practices. It’s not clear at this time what those practices might include.

“Our first on-farm training and education academies will focus on North American growers where we source high-quality oats for Cheerios, Annie’s, Cascadian Farm, Nature Valley and Blue Buffalo,” said Jon Nudi, president of North American Retail for General Mills, in a statement announcing the effort.

There are 914.5 million acres of farmland in the US according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, however, which means General Mills’ initiative is just a drop in the bucket impacting 0.1% of US farmland. Some may argue that having a major manufacturer and industry leader like General Mills take steps towards promoting regenerative agriculture is still an applaudable effort no matter how little it moves the needle. It could help spark an industry-wide race towards launching similar initiatives, but they might only pay lip service in order to keep consumers’ attention.

General Mills is also granting $650,000 to non-profit organization Kiss the Ground to support farmer training and coaching through Soil Health Academies where growers will learn how to increase farm profitability, build resiliency into the land and decrease input costs using soil health practices.

The announcement builds upon the company’s commitment to improve soil health and to reduce its absolute GHG emissions by 28% across its entire value chain by 2025. General Mills reported it is nearly halfway to that goal, with its GHG emissions footprint down 13% in 2018 compared to 2010.

Anheuser-Busch Teams up with Indigo Agriculture to Address Sustainability in Rice Production

Sustainability isn’t just for produce, meat, and packaged goods. Beer is a major staple for countless Americans who spend $111.4 billion on cold ones. This month, Anheuser-Busch announced a new partnership with Indigo Agriculture, an ag biotech startup, to boost sustainability in rice production. Indigo will deliver 2.2 million bushels of Indigo Rice, grown with specific environmental attributes, to the brewer.

But that’s only 12.9% of the total 17 million bushels of rice that the beer maker purchases each year.

Growers contracting with Indigo to produce rice for Anheuser-Busch will reduce water and nitrogen used by 10% and achieve at least 10% savings in greenhouse gas emissions compared to state benchmarks, according to the companies. They also claim that this partnership is the first-of-its-kind to offer growers an end-to-end solution that incentivizes the commercial production of sustainable rice.

“Indigo’s field teams, data collection tools, and commitment to grower profitability make them the ideal partner to source rice with lower environmental impact,” said Jess Newman, director of agronomy for Anheuser-Busch, in a statement announcing the partnership. “Beyond the sustainability gains, we are excited that this partnership is a win-win for grower profitability. Growers can earn a premium for progressive practices, save on water and nutrient input costs, and realize yield increases due to the Indigo microbial seed treatment for rice. By creating a market for rice grown with innovative practices, we are delighted to empower and support our growers as they continue to move the industry forward on farm efficiency.”

As the largest end-user of rice in the US, Anheuser-Busch has the power to set new industry standards, purchasing roughly 2.6 million pounds of rice per day at a company-owned facility in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Tyson’s EDF Partnership Targeting GHG Emissions

Last month, major meat products producer Tyson Foods announced a new partnership with non-profit Environmental Defense Fund to develop and deploy a set of initiatives that will help Tyson achieve its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the company and its supply chains by 30% in 2030.

The partnership, which has employed the services two agtech companies MyFarms and Farmers Business Network, is focused on improving land stewardship by targeting the largest source of GHG emissions in the company: feed and fertilizer.

Tyson-EDF partnership’s first project focuses on land stewardship and aims to pilot and scale agriculture practices on 500,000 acres of corn that reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), improve water quality, and maximize farmer profitability. Other features of the partnership include analyzing sustainability data on farmland and publicly communicating progress and best practices that are identified from the pilot projects.

Consumers on the Sidelines: Clif Bar Calls out KIND Bar, Bud Light Calls Out Miller Coors & AB InBev

Last week, organic snack bar maker Clif Bar issued a challenge to competitor KIND Bar urging the company to go organic in a print edition of The New York Times paper and online.

“Do a truly kind thing and make an investment in the future of the planet and our children’s children by going organic,” Clif Bar’s CEOs Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford wrote to KIND CEO Daniel Lubetzky.

The move was intended to “move the dial on organic” by creative means, according to Crawford, with the ultimate hope of “starting a conversation about the relative importance of organic farming and ingredient sourcing, whether that be encouraging more brands to switch suppliers or encouraging consumers to start buying from brands that do.”

But, as Outside Online suggested, it’s also a marketing move. Clif Bar, which also recently announced a sustainability-focused initiative to provide economic support to organic farmers in its supply chain, could have communicated with KIND discreetly instead of paying for an advertising spot on one of the most widely-read news publications in the world.

Consumers don’t have ample time to research whether companies are putting their money where their sustainability-speaking mouths are, which creates a perfect marketing exploitation opportunity. A number of consumers may have wrongfully assumed that KIND was organic and seeing the advertisement could encourage them to switch to Clif Bar, which happens to be a direct competitor of KIND.

KIND Bar’s CEO responded to the advertisement in a statement to Inc, upping the ante:

“Clif’s approach in selling snacks made predominantly from organic brown rice syrup, which is basically sugar, isn’t the solution. We’d be happy to meet and share why Kind focuses on making snacks that always lead with nutrient-dense ingredients like whole nuts, whole grains, and whole fruit—instead of sugar. That is why Kind’s leading snack bars have a fraction of the sugar in Clif’s lineup.”

A similar dispute took over the limelight during this year’s Super Bowl when Bud Light ran a commercial making light of the fact that competitors MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev use corn syrup to brew their beers. Dubbed “corngate,” MillerCoors fired back by saying that its use of corn syrup supports commodity crop growers.

Either way, consumers are stuck on the sidelines trying to suss out the point of both B2B attacks, the same way consumers are short on information when it comes to whether flashy investments into regenerative agriculture practices are meaningful steps towards progress or just an easy way to improve their optics.

Join the Newsletter

Get the latest news & research from AFN and AgFunder in your inbox.

Join the Newsletter
Get the latest news and research from AFN & AgFunder in your inbox.

Follow us:

Join Newsletter