Bring on the revolution

22 January 2020

Organic farming is all the rage as big food manufacturers snap up a number of healthy, environmentally sensitive brands over recent years. But the organic revolution is far from easy: the process takes time and risks crops being ruined. Andrea Valentino talks to Shauna Sadowski, head of sustainability in the natural and organic operating unit at General Mills, about how these challenges can be overcome and how sharper farming techniques can yield better ingredients.

In 1972, Gene Kahn decided to drop out of college and take up farming. He bought some land by the Skagit River, fringed by the rocks and pine forests of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state and got to work. Inspired while at university, Kahn avoided intensive farming, instead tending to the soil, and cleaning the rivers and streams near the property.

Five decades on, Kahn has become one of the most celebrated natural farmers in the US and the Cascadian Farm sells healthy fruit jams and cereal bars to supermarkets across the country. But if Kahn was a trailblazer back in the dying days of the hippie revolution, other companies are catching up. Even vast conglomerates, including P&G and Nestle, now promote organic produce, a trend that has fired the US health food industry to growth rates of nearly 10% a year.

The road to better practices is not straightforward. Training farmers in new techniques takes time and there is always the temptation to simply stick with tried-and-tested methods. But perseverance is worthwhile in the end. Greener farming methods can radically improve the environment, trapping climate-busting gasses safely in the earth. At the same time, sustainable farming yields far healthier crops, making the soil more profitable – ultimately benefitting consumers and farmers alike.

Environmental footprint

A sprawling multinational with 40,000 staff members, General Mills (GM) is probably not the first company most people would associate with organic farming. But the Minnesotan company started down the environmental trail earlier than most. After acquiring Cascadian Farm back in 2000, GM found itself with new employees – including Gene Kahn. GM executives quickly put Kahn to good use, says Shauna Sadowski, head of sustainability in the natural and organic operating unit at GM.

“When he joined the General Mills family in 2000, Kahn actually became its first chief sustainability officer,” Sadowski explains. “He brought a lot of his knowledge on organic systems into General Mills.” GM has worked hard to broaden its healthy offerings over the following two decades. In 2001, for example, GM acquired Glen Muir, a Californian company that mostly sells organic tomato products. 13 years later, it bought Annie’s, famed for its homespun take on mac and cheese.

In part, all this activity is recognition that as a big multinational, GM has a duty to do its part for the environment, especially now that climate change is such a pressing concern. “General Mills is the number two organic food producer in the US,” Sadowski says, “so we actually have a large [environmental] footprint already with our brands.” After an internal investigation, GM discovered that roughly 40% of Annie’s greenhouse gas emissions were the result of agricultural production. This fits with what scientists are saying: about a third of global greenhouse emissions come from the food system and 80% of that is specifically agricultural.

Sadowski suggests these dangers explain the “fervour” with which GM is moving towards more sustainable farming. That is certainly true to an extent, but the company is probably motivated by more prosaic concerns as well. Over the past few years, consumers have become increasingly eager to go green, with US organic sales breaking the $50 billion mark in 2018. That signals big opportunities for companies that move quickly. The example of Whole Foods is instructive; in 2018, the famously health-conscious retailer enjoyed a yearly revenue growth of 145%.

Fresh shoots

Visit Gunsmoke Farms, a 34,000 acre property in South Dakota and the view will likely feel quintessentially Midwestern. Rows of corn march to the horizon like well-drilled troops, lines of electricity pylons flanking them all the way. In its austere uniformity, Gunsmoke could be in any number of prairie states, from Nebraska to Kansas.

In fact, Gunsmoke is starting on a journey that could revolutionise how crops are grown. Last year, GM bought the property with a plan to turn it organic by 2020. The first step is to clean the soil. For years, Gunsmoke and farms like it have relied on a mix of monocropping and nasty fertilisers, both of which robbed the earth of precious nutrients. The result, Sadowksi says, was “highly degraded land” that was both unhealthy and powerless to trap climate-changing carbon in the ground.

But working with Midwestern BioAg, a Wisconsin agricultural company, GM is starting to heal the land. “Right now, the land managers are working to build up the soil organic matter,” Sadowski says. “They’re trying to build the nutrients in the soil and build the nitrogen.” This could involve everything from opening fields up for livestock to planting alfalfa during winter months, a technique known as cover cropping. At any rate, more sensitive farming can be hugely beneficial, not least for the environment. Healthy soil and the microbial activity that comes with it, acts like a sponge, preventing soil carbon from escaping into carbon dioxide.

Percentage of world organic producers that are smallholders in low and middleincome countries.
2019 US Farm Bill

The advantages of so-called ‘regenerative agriculture’ do not end with climate change either. Rather, it forms part of what Sadowksi calls a “virtuous circle” that begins with promoting organic matter in the soil and ultimately “feeds the plants and offers good food products.” The wheat grown at Gunsmoke will eventually be used in Annie’s signature organic mac and cheese. Furthermore, GM does not plan to limit itself to arable farming. In 2016, for instance, it announced a partnership with Organic Valley to add nearly 3,000 acres of organic dairy production. “General Mills is the number two organic food producer in the US. So we actually have a large environmental footprint already with our brands.”

“General Mills is the number two organic food producer in the US. So we actually have a large environmental footprint already with our brands.”

Deep roots

Go to any grocery store in the US and you can find whole aisles devoted to ‘natural’ or ‘healthy’ products. But names can be deceiving. Last year, for example, a batch of non-organic soybeans suddenly received ‘organic’ certification after crossing the Atlantic from Europe. For its part, GM has been criticised for resisting a California law forcing companies to highlight products that used genetically modified ingredients. With customers increasingly assertive of their rights, corporations cannot afford to slip up.

“If we can all be paid in our roles to change the system, then we have a better chance of getting there.”

GM is clearly conscious of these challenges and has introduced measures to make its organic offerings more transparent. One method uses a scorecard to measure how successfully farms incorporate sustainable practices, from planting cover crops to cutting down on pesticides. This is not just an act: show customers that your ingredients really are superior and the results can be impressive. Sadowski points to a project called ‘Deeply Rooted For Good’ that made cereal from kernza, an organic strain of wheat. Though the plan was an agricultural failure – “We had a 95% yield loss on the crop,” says Sadowski – GM still raised $25,000 selling limited-edition kernza cereal to hungry bohemians.

That reference to “yield loss” is telling. If hipsters in Seattle or Bushwick are happy to spend more on sustainable produce, convincing US farmers to disrupt production is harder, especially when half already lose money each year. The solution, Sadowski says, is to persuade planters that regenerative agriculture can help them too. For example, if a field is plagued by weeds or pests, “you can tell farmers that different practices, like cover cropping or reduced tillage, can combat these problems. Part of it is changing their mindsets”.

At the same time, Sadowski stresses the importance of “having the infrastructure and technical resources in place” to help agriculturists adapt. To that end, GM is working with several partners, including South Dakota State University, to educate farmers and measure improvements. For Sadowski, the end goal is to make organic farms that “actually become more economically resilient, because they won’t be putting money into costly inputs” like artificial fertilisers. “Instead, [farmers] can hold more of that profitability on the farm.”

These broad reforms sweep back to what GM puts on supermarket shelves. Working with a pair of small farms in Montana, for example, the company recently launched organic new ranges of mac and cheese, and graham crackers. Nor is GM alone. Earlier this year, Kraft Heinz acquired Primal Kitchen, an organic condiments brand, while Unilever now sponsors healthy crop conferences. Unusually for a corporate representative, Sadowski seems keen on the competition. “We want General Mills to lead in this space, but we also want others to be a part of it,” Sadowski explains. “Because if we can all be paid in our roles to change the system, then we have a better chance of getting there.”

Given how much Sadowski and the team at GM has done already, there is every reason to be confident. There is still plenty more to do, but if GM can make Gunsmoke Farms a success, other organic investments are bound to follow. Half a century on from the start of his adventure, Gene Kahn is still shaping agriculture – good news for farmers, consumers and the environment.

Global organic area reaches another all-time high

For global organic agriculture, 2017 was another record year. According to the latest FiBL survey on organic agriculture worldwide, the organic farmland increased substantially, and the number of organic producers and retail sales also continued to grow, reaching another all-time high, as shown by data from 181 countries. The 20th edition of the study ‘The World of Organic Agriculture’ published by FiBL and IFOAM – Organics International shows a continuation of the positive trend seen in the past few years. The annual survey on organic agriculture worldwide is supported by the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO), the International Trade Centre (ITC), the Sustainability Fund of Coop Switzerland and NurnbergMesse, the organisers of the BIOFACH fair.

The global organic market continues to grow worldwide

The market research company Ecovia Intelligence estimates that the global market for organic food reached $97 billion in 2017. The US is the leading market with €40 billion, followed by Germany (€10 billion), France (€7.9 billion) and China (€7.6 billion). In 2017, many major markets continued to show double-digit growth rates and the French organic market grew by 18%. The Swiss spent the most on organic food (€288 per capita in 2017). Denmark had the highest organic market share (13.3% of the total food market).

Almost three million producers worldwide

In 2017, 2.9 million organic producers were reported, which is 5% more than in 2016. India continues to be the country with the highest number of producers (835,200), followed by Uganda (210,352) and Mexico (210,000).

Record growth of the organic farmland

A total of 69.8 million hectares were organically managed at the end of 2017, representing a growth of 20% or 11.7 million hectares over 2016, the largest growth ever recorded. Australia has the largest organic agricultural area (35.6 million hectares), followed by Argentina (3.4 million hectares) and China (3 million hectares). Due to the large area increase in Australia, half of the global organic agricultural land is now in Oceania (35.9 million hectares). Europe has the secondlargest area (21%; 14.6 million hectares), followed by Latin America (11.5%; 8.0 million hectares). The organic area increased in all continents.

10% or more of the farmland is organic in 14 countries

Globally, 1.4% of the farmland is organic. However, many countries have far higher shares. The countries with the largest organic share of their total farmland are Liechtenstein (37.9%), Samoa (37.6%), and Austria (24%). In 14 countries, 10% or more of all agricultural land is organic.

Source: FiBL 

Shauna Sadowski, head of sustainability in the natural and organic operating unit at GM.

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