By Anne McGarvey, NFU Intern

The way consumers think about food is changing across the country, and food companies are racing to keep up. But what does this mean for family farmers? 

Americans are paying more attention not only to how their dietary choices affect their health and wellness, but also how they impact the environment and communities in which they are produced. Food manufacturers are shifting their operations — and, in turn, their supply chains — in response to these changing consumer values. While it is important that these companies understand and address the challenges farmers face in adjusting their production methods, the sustainability practices these companies are encouraging could save farmers money on inputs, boost yields, and increase resilience to weather extreme caused by climate change.

General Mills is one such company that is working with their supply chain as part of their corporate sustainability goals.  The company is asking the farmers they source from to adopt practices that address various issues, including climate change, water stewardship, and ecosystem health. These efforts are focused on producers of ten priority crops, three of which — corn, wheat, and sugar beets — are grown in the United States. The company aims to sustainably source all ten of their priority crops by 2020. In the United States, General Mills is making headway toward this goal by assessing certain on-farm sustainability metrics, partnering with organizations to develop innovative sustainable farming methods, and investing in organic farms. When adopted widely, such changes will contribute to curbing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing water use, and improving soil health and water quality

General Mills is enrolling its farmers in Field to Market programs that use the Fieldprint Calculator to quantify and track sustainability metrics for corn, wheat, and sugar beets production. Fieldprint is an online tool that allows farmers to capture data on multiple sustainability indicators, including greenhouse gas emissions, irrigated water use, and soil conservation. The third-party platform then allows farmers to anonymously compare their measurements against other farms throughout the country. For General Mills, Fieldprint can help assess which farms are continuously improving their sustainability practices. For farmers, the tool can help farmers better understand corporate expectations. On a broader scale, this and similar platforms could help all commodity farmers receive credit for their sustainable practices while also noticeably improving soil health and water quality on their farms.

In addition to encouraging U.S. commodity crop farmers to employ new technologies, General Mills is also partnering with programs like the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative (MRCC) to innovate sustainable farming methods. MRCC was founded by General Mills and other food industry and conservation leaders, and works to innovate and implement technical farming practices to improve air quality, water quality, and soil health while maintaining and increasing yields. Currently, MRCC is running a pilot program with row crop farmers in Illinois, Iowa, and Nebraska. As commodity growers look to make changes that will help their bottom line, this could have far-reaching implications for land conservation.

Furthermore, as part of its effort to improve ecosystem health, General Mills is investing in organic farming through partnerships and research projects. As of June 2017, the company is the second largest organic food producer in the United States and one of the top five organic ingredient purchasers in North America. One way General Mills has become such a giant in the organic industry is by establishing agreements with individual farms to guarantee a supply of crops. For example, in 2018 in South Dakota, General Mills agreed to convert 34,000 acres of Gunsmoke Farms’ previously conventionally farmed land to organic wheat production. General Mills has also partnered with the U.S. Organic Grain Collaboration and other research organizations to fund critical research on organic practices.

As sustainability becomes a key value for consumers in America, food makers like General Mills are crucial to how that value is expressed in the food we eat and the environment we reside. Family farmers should be attentive as food makers race to keep up with consumer demands. These changes will present both significant challenges and new profitable opportunities for farms and rural communities.  


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