We caught up with Kevin O’Donnell, Global Director, Sourcing & Operations Sustainability at General Mills about how the company is advancing regenerative agriculture and how farmers can benefit from this platform to protect soil health.

Kevin O Donnell - General Mills - Virtual World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit
Kevin O’Donnell, Global Director, Sourcing & Operations Sustainability, GENERAL MILLS

What led General Mills to make the frame-breaking commitment to advance regenerative agriculture on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030? How are you defining regenerative agriculture, why does it matter and is this a significant number of acres?
General Mills is a company that’s been around ‘Making Food the World Loves’ for more than 150 years. Our business model is highly dependent on Mother Nature continuing to function well but her health report hasn’t been looking so good. We’ve lost half of our farmable topsoil over the past 100 years with the trend accelerating in recent decades, there’s increasing evidence of climate change and weather volatility, and we’re seeing some alarming trends in biodiversity loss and other ecosystem stress.

Recognizing the imperative to protect the planet that provides the ingredients our brands need to feed the world, we’ve made a number of industry leading public sustainability commitments in recent years including:

  • Sustainably sourcing our top 10 food ingredients by the end of CY 2020
  • Being the first company in any sector to set a full, value chain-wide Science-Based Target Initiative greenhouse gas reduction commitment
  • And more recently, around Regenerative Agriculture.
  • Along the way, we’ve done great things to protect and restore pollinator habitat and promote water stewardship as well.

Given continuing decline though, we’re recognizing that simply sustaining natural resources and ecosystems is no longer enough which is why we’re pivoting hard to regeneration in order to more intentionally enhance and restore ecosystems and farming community resiliency. As a result, we made a commitment last Spring to advance regenerative agriculture on 1 miilion acres of farmland by 2030. This is not an insubstantial number – it’s an area roughly the size of the Grand Canyon and about 20% of our North American sourcing footprint.

Regenerative agriculture is a different way of thinking. It’s about seeing the farm as a holistic ecosystem and viewing common issues like pests, weeds, disease and nutrient deficiency NOT just as problems to patch up with a synthetic input, but instead as a symptom of an unhealthy ecosystem.

The only lasting solution to these problems is repairing and getting to healthier ecosystems. We see regenerative agriculture as the way to do that and are defining it as a holistic, principles-based approach to farming and ranching that seeks to strengthen and intentionally enhance ecosystems and farming community resiliency.

We believe the way to do that is by following 6 key principles of regenerative agriculture which are – to understand the context of your farm operation, reduce soil disturbance, maximize plant diversity, keep the soil covered, keep a living root in the ground year round, and integrate livestock where possible.

These principles are all good individually but unlock even more power when combined and stacked. And they can be used by any farmer – organic, conventional or other – to leverage the power of natural systems to sequester carbon, support biodiversity, reduce reliance on inputs, and improve profitability.

As one of the largest global food companies, General Mills is trying to leverage our scale to make a positive impact on the food system. We’re trying to use Big as a force for good by driving agricultural innovation and standing up regenerative agriculture value chain and farmer pilots for commodities where we have a significant market impact such as in oats, wheat and dairy.

With low carbon, low nitrogen farming methods encouraged, how are farmers and technology providers balancing productivity with protecting soil health?
Again, we see the real power of regenerative agriculture being in combining and stacking farming methods that align with the key principles shared earlier. The whole is absolutely greater than the sum of its parts in this case.

It’s early days and we still have much to learn, but many of the renaissance farmers who have pioneered regenerative agriculture over the past 25 years – some of whom are providing expert consulting assistance to our farmer pilots – don’t believe that there’s necessarily a significant productivity trade-off to be balanced with regenerative agriculture – the cornerstone which has improved soil health – especially with the right focus on whole farm profitability.

Which new and emerging technologies and collaborations can support a win for both objectives?
At General Mills, we’re intent on making regenerative agriculture about measurable outcomes in improved farmer profitability, soil health, above ground biodiversity and water stewardship.  Rather than a practice-based, tick-the-box checklist type approach, we believe that demonstrating these outcomes is the best way to build the farmer business case for regenerative agriculture and sparking positive change across the broader food system.

That said, one of the biggest barriers to unlocking regenerative agriculture at scale then is to significantly lower the cost of measuring these outcomes over time. This has led us to bring together a very innovative group of measurement technology collaborators to help crack this challenge. As a result, we’re working with a group of partners as diverse as remote satellite sensing, trace gas soil monitoring and baselining/measuring changes in insect and bird populations over time using cutting edge approaches.

Improving farmer profitability is one of the foundational outcomes we want to measure and we don’t see this as being in fundamental conflict with all of the other positive benefits that regenerative agriculture brings to ecosystems, natural resource conservation and planetary health overall. General Mills views these outcomes as not just desirable, but as perquisites for our continuing ability to ‘Make Food the World loves’ for the next 150+ years.

Join Kevin O’Donnell at the upcoming virtual World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit on September 15 and tune into his panel discussion on ‘Soil Health: Can Farmers Become Part ofthe Climate Change Solution?’ in the dedicated Sustainability Track. For more information about General Mills, follow them on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and Instagram.