Shauna Sadowski is head of sustainability for the Natural & Organic Operating Unit at General Mills.
Last month, PBS published an article that explored how more organic farming could worsen global warming.
The article discusses a recent study, which predicts that a shift to 100% organic food production in the U.K. could result in higher greenhouse gas emissions. The finding is driven by the assumption that a significant yield gap between organic and conventional agriculture exists, and lower crop yields in the UK would require increased production elsewhere, offsetting any decrease in greenhouse gas emissions conferred by organic farming practices.
Toward the end of the article, the writer cites a study from the Rodale Institute that suggests implementing a suite of regenerative agriculture practices, like cover cropping and diverse crop rotations, has the potential to effectively cut down greenhouse gas emissions.
While it is encouraging to see regenerative agriculture featured in the article, it is important to remember that many organic farmers are already employing regenerative practices. And while definitions of regenerative do vary, it is important to recognize and celebrate where all farmers have made inroads — and where there is opportunity to do more.
At General Mills, we take a holistic, inclusive and outcomes-based approach to regenerative agriculture. We define it as farming that protects and intentionally enhances natural resources and farming communities. Key tenets of organic agriculture include moving away from synthetic pesticides and herbicides, maintaining and building soil health, and improving biodiversity — aligning with the spirit of regenerative agriculture.
Regenerative agriculture can be practiced by organic and non-organic farmers alike, rendering the approach accessible to all types of farmers regardless of their starting point. General Mills frames its understanding of regenerative agriculture around five key principles championed by scientists and pioneering farmers like Gabe Brown: minimize soil disturbance, maximize diversity, keep the soil covered, keep a living root in the ground year-round and integrate livestock.
General Mills, as the PBS article acknowledges, works with farmers who employ regenerative agriculture practices to grow ingredients used across our product portfolio, from organic offerings like Annie's and Cascadian Farm to iconic brands like Cheerios and Nature Valley.
Unfortunately, this article falls short on presenting a holistic lens into the food system and the nuanced role that organic can play in landscapes and communities. There are several omissions and misleading assertions we'd like to address:
The article fails to mention the study's finding that transitioning to organic would result in 20% lower emissions per ton of crop, compared with a conventional baseline.
- This is a significant omission and a point for which organic systems are often overlooked. The majority of conventional operations rely on fossil-fuel intensive synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which are largely prohibited by the organic standard. This means that organic practices can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared with a conventional baseline, because they rely on biological nutrient cycling and pest management in place of fossil-fuel based inputs.
Production is an important metric of success for the food system, but it is not the only metric worth considering.
- While yield is a critical outcome to measure, a singular focus on yield obscures other important metrics of success like clean water, abundant wildlife and healthy soil. Organic farming can generate myriad ecological benefits, which are worth including as part of a holistic cost-benefit analysis that measures the long-term health of our food system. Furthermore, acknowledging that yield is affected by seed breeds and farming practices, the yield gap offers opportunities on how to bring research and innovation to farms, unleashing a new way of farming that considers yields, profitability and ecology, among other benefits.
A narrow focus on the organic-conventional yield gap sidesteps the fact that we waste one-third of the food we produce globally.
- By eliminating food waste globally, we could recover a third of our food supply. Focusing solely on a need for increased production ignores the fact that reducing food waste, eliminating poverty and equalizing access to food could all contribute to our ability to feed the growing population.
The predictions cited in the article are based on models, not actual outcomes.
- Finally, it is worth raising a point about the models that run these analyses in the first place. Based on our work at General Mills, we know that there are limitations to current lifecycle assessment models — tools that track the impact of an ingredient or a product from cradle to grave. Results can vary tremendously based on the practices farmers use in their local landscape. The practices organic farmers implement vary significantly from operation to operation, and this variability is challenging to adequately capture in a model. That's why General Mills seeks to understand farmers' practices within the context of their location.
At General Mills, we celebrate the important role that organic farmers play in helping us better understand the negative consequences of farming practices that disrupt ecosystems. As regenerative agriculture builds momentum, we can thank organic pioneers like Gene Kahn for elevating the importance of farming practices that have the potential to not only sustain, but to restore our land. At the same time, it's important for farmers to autonomously choose the practices that best align with their land stewardship philosophies and the region-specific needs of their land. All farmers — organic, conventional, small, large, crop and livestock — are part of the path toward a healthy food system.
This article is an important reminder to keep improving our measurement systems and supporting an outcomes-based approach so that all of agriculture, organic included, can move away from being a big part of the climate problem to instead be a big part of the climate solution.