General Mills: Regenerating the Food System One Acre at a Time
Written by Ella Boyce, CRB Editorial Assistant and B.S. ’21
In 2018, the Center for Responsible Business (CRB) announced its partnership with the Natural and Organic Operating Unit at General Mills. This symbiotic partnership has accelerated and scaled the CRB’s Sustainable Food Initiative and has provided General Mills a pipeline to the next generation of responsible business leaders. General Mills began acquiring natural and organic brands almost twenty years ago and today they own the second largest portfolio of organic brands in the U.S. with over $1 billion in net sales for the 2019 fiscal year.
Through their partnership, the CRB and General Mills published an academic case study last year as a learning tool for business school students to explore the motivations, methods, and schematics of General Mills’ commitment towards becoming a more responsible company. The case study, General Mills: Driving Food Systems Change through Regenerative Agriculture, highlights the company’s push for regenerative agriculture practices across their supply chain and the influencing power a major brand can have on the market. Carla Vernón is president of the Natural and Organics Operating Unit, the branch within General Mills responsible for leading the crusade on sustainable supply chain initiatives. Berkeley Haas welcomed Vernón as part of the Edible Education 101 Lecture Series to share the trajectory of General Mills’ sustainability journey and what it’s like to be a changemaker in the corporate space as a way to inspire the next generation of responsible business leaders.
Currently, the global food system accounts for one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, 80% of those emissions from agriculture.1 General Mills’ acquisition of holistic brands in the late 1990’s resulted from tracking consumer trends and predicting market trajectory and today General Mills is home to the second largest portfolio of organic brands in the U.S.2. In the General Mills Case Study, Vernón states that extending their reach into the holistic food sector and creating the Natural and Organics Operating Unit gave rise to a new series of discussions regarding the longevity of General Mills’ supply chain, the meaning of Organic, their responsibility to address the climate crisis, and ideas about biodynamic farming using regenerative agriculture practices. Executives concluded they needed to make public General Mills’ intentions to be accountable for the social and environmental impacts of its supply chain.
In 2014 General Mills released an official climate policy that states, “As a global food company, General Mills recognizes the risks that climate change presents to humanity, our environment and our livelihoods. Changes in climate not only affect global food security but also impact General Mills’ raw material supply which, in turn, affects our ability to deliver quality, finished product to our consumers and ultimately, value to our shareholders.” The policy also included a vow to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across their whole value chain by 28% before 2025 and a pledge to sustainably source its top 10 most crucial ingredients by 2020.
The pledge to sustainably source it’s 10 most prominent ingredients is backed by the company’s shift to focus on farming practices that increase soil fertility, sequester carbon, and utilize natural nutrient cycles to reduce input costs and increase yields and profitability, a practice otherwise known as regenerative agriculture. Healthy soil means more biodiversity and less greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere, making way for global ecosystems to thrive. After all, 99% of our food comes from the soil, highlights Annie’s Marketing Manager Ali Kelley, and 50% of the world’s topsoil has already been lost.3 Sustainability teams at General Mills got to work and began developing frameworks for integrating regenerative agriculture into the supply chain.
Head of Sustainability at Annie’s, Shauna Sadowski’s team outlined four defining pillars for their regenerative agriculture supply chain: soil health, biodiversity, water and farmer economic resilience. For General Mills, working with the farmers and supporting them in the transition to sustainable agriculture is key. The team developed measurement tools to track the company’s progress on the three pillars to ensure that future decisions would be backed by data.
After researching regenerative agriculture in action, communicating with farmers, and developing a framework for the new sustainable supply chain, Annie’s and General Mills decided to debut two limited edition products created on farms using regenerative agriculture practices at a large industry trade show. The Honey Bunny Grahams and Elbow Pasta & Cheddar boxes featured the farmer’s photo and a blurb outlining the link between soil health and reduced atmospheric greenhouse gasses. This marketing visualizes the connection between farmers and consumers, putting them directly in touch with the product.
Though they had many early breakthroughs, adapting to sustainably sourced ingredients wasn’t without objection or scrutiny from other members of the company. There was concern from the Presidents of other operating units if sourcing inputs sustainably would positively impact consumer purchasing decisions enough to see a positive return on the investment needed to make the shift. When the One-Million Acre Bet was put on the table (a pledge to advance regenerative agriculture on one million acres of farmland by 2030) it faced substantial backlash. The reality was that the company didn’t have a concrete plan as to how to implement the bet and many feared that making a public announcement would lead to nothing but embarrassment and a loss of money.
After much deliberation, General Mills decided to move forward with the public announcement in 2019. Company leaders reflected that a leap of faith is required for any multinational company to catalyze industry change. With the commitment now public, General Mills still had to iron out the exact steps needed to tackle this ambitious goal and develop supply side metrics and relationships. Despite having unanswered questions, the company states in the case study that it is glad to have made the announcement as it hopes to galvanize change in the industry and encourage cross-sector collaboration.
Vernón remarks in the case study that General Mills doesn’t just stand for the financial bottom line, but also for the people and the planet. Their shift toward regenerative agriculture is a signature of their commitment to being the most trusted brand to care for the planet. In her Edible Education 101 Lecture, charismatic Vernón stood before the audience and inspired them with the tale of her entry into the organic food sector. Vernón wrapped her talk in authenticity as she described what makes working at General Mills so special. She highlighted the values that anchor General Mills and explained how those values motivated their shift toward regenerative agriculture. She expanded how strong relationships with farmers continue to guide this transition. Vernón explained that converting to regenerative agriculture has presented challenges, but is nonetheless excited to see the plan come together. The pride was evident in her stature and voice as she described General Mills’ ownership of their carbon footprint and the impact their decision will have on the industry.
About the Author
Ella Boyce, B.S. Society and Environment ’21
Ella Boyce is a third year undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Society and Environment in the Rausser College of Natural Resources. She began working with the CRB in the Fall 2019 as Editorial Assistant and looks forward to continuing in 2020 as the Marketing Manager. As a former student athlete, she is passionate about Student-Athlete wellness and is in the process of cultivating a resilience program for Cal Athletics. With scandinavian heritage, she is especially fascinated by Nordic sustainability initiatives. In her free time, Ella enjoys spending time surfing, trail-running, and relaxing with friends and family.