A group of General Mills employees recently traveled to a farm in Redwood Falls, Minn., to feel the difference regenerative agriculture has made for the soil.
In those fistfuls of fertile loam, they held a key element of the company's future.
"We are a company that depends completely on the health of mother nature," said Mary Jane Melendez, chief sustainability and global impact officer at General Mills. "This work in regenerative agriculture is not just a nice thing to do: it's about business and planetary resilience."
The Golden Valley-based food company now has more than 225,000 acres of regenerative-managed farmland in its supply chain, keeping toward its goal of 1 million acres by 2030.
Though that initial milestone represents a fraction of the total acreage that supplies the company, regenerative agriculture represents "our primary strategy for meeting our greenhouse gas goal," said Steve Rosenzweig, senior soil scientist at General Mills.
"I definitely wake up with a gnawing sense of urgency and stress, but there are reasons to be hopeful," he said. "We have the solutions today to meet the targets we need to meet; it's just the matter of generating collective will and investment."
Regenerative agriculture is an umbrella term for a number of practices, such as cover crops and low- or no-till farming, that can help soil naturally regenerate nutrients while reducing fertilizer needs, runoff and impacts to water quality. It can also lead to more carbon captured in the soil.
Many major Minnesota food companies, including Cargill, Land O'Lakes and Hormel Foods, are also pursuing regenerative agriculture to meet their climate pledges. The approach has helped enlist farmers who might not have embraced organic certification, which can accomplish many of the same goals.
"At the end of the day, this has to work for the farmer. We don't force or require any farmer to participate," Melendez said. "But we hope to bring down barriers to entry, paying for measurements and validating different outcomes."
Measuring those outcomes remains a work in progress. Land management changes can take years to produce quantifiable results in carbon storage, biodiversity and water quality.
General Mills recently partnered with tech company Regrow Agriculture to monitor 175 million acres of farmland — the amount used to supply General Mills — across North America, Europe and South America. About 3 million of those acres being monitored are General Mills suppliers.
The goal is to improve data collection and baselines to measure the success of regenerative practices — and in turn provide evidence those practices are a win-win for farmers and the planet.
"We need better tracking tools, technology and systems to understand what's happening in our supply sheds," said Jay Watson, a leader of the climate and regenerative agriculture team at General Mills. "It's a continuum, this regenerative concept, and farmers need to know what they need to go down that path on their own."
To further incentivize more farmers to get on board, the company recently invested $3 million in Eco-Harvest, a voluntary market program that generates and sells credits for increased soil carbon, reduced greenhouse gases and improved water quality.
"Market-based incentives and mechanisms can reward farmers for their services to society," Watson said. "It's good for business, and others can benefit as well."
General Mills has pledged to reduce emissions 30% by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions in 2050. Rapid growth during the pandemic and supply chain inefficiencies caused emissions to rise 2% between the middle of 2020 and summer 2021, company leaders said this spring.
Melendez said she remains "very optimistic we can tackle this challenge."
"I also think we need to figure out how to accelerate our efforts."