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Is General Mills the only one putting its money where its mouth is on sustainability?

August 21, 2019

General Mills has been the subject of some bad press recently, particularly after a study concluded that 21 of its products, including Cheerios and Nature Valley cereals, contain glyphosate residue, the main ingredient in the much-vilified RoundUp pesticide. The chemical’s manufacturer, Bayer, has been battling a series of lawsuits brought by plaintiffs claiming that exposure to glyphosate caused them to develop cancer and that then-manufacturer Monsanto knew of the risk and failed to provide appropriate warnings.

General Mills is hoping to clean up its image and its supply chain with a recently announced commitment to investing in regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres of farmland in its supply chain by 2030. In general, the term regenerative agriculture refers to farming practices that encourage biodiversity, soil health, clean water, and enhanced ecosystems for wildlife. According to General Mills, these practices can also reduce the use of pesticides through healthier soils, more resilient crops, and rotating plants to reduce pest pressure.

Earlier this month, General Mills published new farming strategies aimed at reducing reliance on synthetic pesticides that it wants growers in its supply chain to adopt. The major food products manufacturer has highlighted four key strategies for synthetic pesticide reduction: integrated pest management practices (which combines pest management strategies to reduce risks to people and the environment), pollinator habitat cultivation, organic acreage expansion, and regenerative agriculture.

Damaging publicity can be a powerful motivator, but it was As You Sow, a nonprofit organization promoting environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy, coalition building, and innovative legal strategies, that provided the company with the push it needed to not only make a commitment but to make it measurable.

“We had some hesitancy at first in response to their announcement about their regenerative agriculture program. We took a careful effort to comb through them and to determine whether they were substantial. We talked to other folks in our network who are working with other companies to see how it compares to what other companies are doing and it really does seem like General Mills is stepping up and providing significantly more detail than other food manufacturer and even retailers,” Christy Spees, environmental health program manager at As You Sow, told AFN.

As You Sow approached General Mills about its pesticide usage around 2017 when the company was running a marketing campaign about pollinator protection without providing any disclosures or transparency about pesticide use in its supply chain. Pesticide use has been one of the nonprofits’ main targets in light of several issues concerning its use such as residues in food, pollinator species decline, and its perspective that pesticide is one of the root problems in conventional agriculture’s environmental impact. Its negative media coverage was additional fuel for the fire.

It took two resolutions containing proposals on how the company could reduce pesticide use in its supply chain for the corporation to take action.

“This last year we filed a second resolution and a little over 30% of shareholders supported it. The resolution asked for metrics demonstrating that the company was reducing pesticide use, particularly neonicotinoids, and then over the following year the company hadn’t really made much progress answering that request,” Spees explained. “We filed it again and the company reached out to negotiate. To their credit, they really took that extra push and put a lot of additional effort into asking whether the commitments they were considering would be sustainable enough for us to withdraw the resolution.”

Since launching its regenerative agriculture commitment, General Mills has helped facilitate the conversion of 136,000 acres to integrated pest management practices and has more trainings in the works. It’s invested $6 million to support pollinator health and research efforts and is aiming to have 250,000 organic acres in production by 2019, while also investing $4.5 million in farm soil health practices and research since 2016.

What does regenerative agriculture mean to the company? On its website, it lists on five core principles: minimize soil disturbance, maximize crop diversity, keep the soil covered, maintain living root year-round, and integrating livestock.

Suggesting that farmers integrate livestock is particularly interesting in light of the ongoing and highly protracted debate about livestock’s proper place in our food system and the effort to combat climate change. Companies like Impossible Foods have built entire marketing platforms around the sentiment that giving up meat will save the planet, while others like Indigo Ag and the Western Sustainability Exchange are building carbon credit markets to help farmers adopt carbon sequestering practices like rotationally grazing ruminant animals.

Greenwashing or goalsetting?

Although a number of corporations are announcing sustainability initiatives, such as Anheuser Busch and Tyson Foods as well as Danone, it’s often hard to know whether they are mere lip service to consumers’ new sustainability-driven demands or programs that will make real differences.

But General Mills has added a healthy dose of transparency to its initiative to help consumers and industry stakeholders see that it’s not just trying to drive more sales through greenwashed marketing claims.

“They have provided metrics and they are collecting data from farmers enrolled in their regenerative agriculture program at the farm level and those include specific metrics around pesticide use such as which pesticide is being used, why it’s being used, and how often it is being used and in what quantity,” Spees explained. “All of that data will be really helpful in them being able to demonstrate progress. Their intention is to share baseline data after the first year of the program and to publish data each following year”

As for other corporate sustainability initiatives, Spees shares our skepticism over whether companies are truly committing to improving their environmental impact and to supporting farmers’ adoption of new agricultural practices, or if they’re chasing consumer dollars. She cautions consumers against taking sustainability claims about sourcing 100% of an ingredient sustainably with a grain of salt and encourages shoppers to ask deeper questions about how that company defines sustainability or whether it has provided any data to substantiate the lofty claim.

Consumers’ demand for greater transparency with these initiatives could not only help weed out the flimsy profit-driven theatrics from the altruistic efforts, but it could also push companies with deep resources and powerful play over their supply chains to set goals that will actually have a meaningful impact.

“We see this with antibiotic usage in livestock. Companies or restaurants want to make claims about antibiotic use, but we are seeing a lot of lowball commitments. Corporations are concerned about failing to meet any commitment that they make. It’s a risk for them to not be able to back it up with real information,” she explains. “There have been plenty of class-action lawsuits against companies making product claims that don’t end up being accurate.

Although some may argue that demanding greater transparency in corporate sustainability initiatives could discourage businesses from attempting to make improvements, a growing number of consumers have already made it clear that they are also willing to put their spending dollars where their mouth is when it comes to supporting sustainable changes in the food system.

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