Wheat sustainability initiative
Oct. 2, 2013
by Josh Sosland
For General Mills, Inc. and other grain-based foods companies, there is much to be gained by helping the grower community sustainably produce wheat and other baking ingredients, said Steven L. Peterson, director of sourcing sustainability at Minneapolis, Minnesota, U.S.-based General Mills.
Peterson described General Mills’ thinking about sustainability in an interview with Milling & Baking News, sister publication of World Grain, shortly after his company announced it was breaking out “sustainable sourcing” as a separate area in its corporate responsibility efforts. The initiative takes on added importance given General Mills’ traditional position as the largest wheat user in the United States.
“General Mills is at the forefront of sustainable sourcing efforts in wheat through its partnership with Field to Market (FTM), having recently completed a three-year pilot project to study the environmental impact of wheat production in the Snake River region of Idaho,” the company said in announcing its sourcing initiative.
In the interview, Peterson identified three interrelated reasons sourcing sustainability has become a priority for General Mills. First, the issue is important to the company’s customers and has been growing in importance. In addition, producing food sustainably is “the right thing to do,” he said. He added, “We really need to work together in a collaborative way that we never have done before.”
Finally, Peterson identified what he views as a compelling business case for General Mills to aggressively address the issue, beyond keeping the company’s customers satisfied.
“We must protect and conserve the natural resources on which our business depends,” he said. “This includes the wonderful raw materials we put in our products. Our business future is very dependent on an ongoing supply of raw materials.”
Wheat and oats rank high among these raw materials, he said.
Peterson’s background leaves him well suited for the complicated array of issues he confronts in his role as director of sourcing sustainability. He has extensive experience within supply chain operations and sourcing. He was with The Pillsbury Co. for 15 years, joining General Mills in 2001 when Pillsbury was acquired. Before moving to other assignments he was senior director of ingredient sourcing at Pillsbury. He owns and manages a farm in Paynesville, west of Minneapolis. Additionally, Peterson is actively involved in Field to Market, serving as vice-chairman of the organization.
While General Mills has cited commodity sourcing in the past as part of its environmental sustainability efforts, the decision to break out commodity sourcing shows its heightened emphasis, Peterson said.
“We have really evolved in that raw materials have become a critical part of our sustainability efforts at General Mills,” he said. “We’ve known this intuitively for a long time, but we’ve done the work in the past year to confirm this.”
Elaborating on the importance of sourcing within the broader objective of improving sustainability at General Mills, Peterson said analysis of the environmental footprint of the $17 billion company brought the recognition that two-thirds of this footprint resides upstream from the company, with its suppliers. In the case of its water footprint, the upstream figure is 99%.
Even though real sustainability progress at General Mills depends on tackling the issue upstream, Peterson said the sequence followed by the company — reducing the footprint at the company level and downstream — makes sense.
“We began our journey in sustainability within our four walls, where we have control,” he said. “We understand the game is really upstream for us. Leading food companies are aware of this. Approximately 80% of global fresh water is used in agriculture — the single largest use by far. In the case of carbon dioxide, the analysis is more complicated. Roughly, the number for global carbon dioxide output related to agriculture is a third.”
HOW FTM WORKS
In looking at ways to reduce the company’s environmental footprint, Peterson identified Field to Market as “a critical forum.”
“For several categories, like wheat, we don’t come up with the definition of what sustainable is,” he said. “That decision is made within an FTM roundtable where all members of the value chain are represented. Almost 50 companies are represented. The whole value chain is there.
“What’s critical is that it is within the group where there is an emerging definition of what sustainable row crops are. I think that’s very important. It took a long time to agree around the framework, the calculator identifying the key environmental factors it takes to grow North American row crops.”
The company’s pilot project in the Snake River Valley of Idaho will create a baseline environmental footprint against which General Mills will be able to measure improvement over time, adjusted for the vagaries of Mother Nature, Peterson said.
“That’s where Field to Market is going,” he said. “The pilot in Idaho is one of the leading pilots. Beyond the work in Idaho, we’re doing similar work in the Prairies of Canada. Our strategic crop there is oats.”
In Idaho, Peterson said the wheat project likely will expand.
“We’re focusing on one crop right now,” he said. “To really measure (sustainability progress), you need the whole rotation. Now we’re getting the potato industry to join us in Idaho, then sugar beets and possibly barley.”
SNAKE RIVER VALLEY PROJECT
Elaborating on the Snake River Valley project, Peterson said the work began three years ago. While Idaho is not one of the top U.S. wheat production states, Peterson described it as a significant wheat source for General Mills. It is located east of Boise and north of Salt Lake City. About 20 growers were identified to participate.
“These were not randomly selected,” he said. “They are progressive growers, mostly on irrigated farmland. They are geographically diverse. We then gathered this group, and we talked with them about the importance of the project and asked them to participate.
“We’ve collected almost 60,000 acres worth of wheat land we fieldprinted over three different growing seasons — 2010, 2011 and 2012, using the Field to Market approach. That’s how we established the baseline against which we are going to measure against.”
The importance of the baseline and data gathering is difficult to overstate as progress in agriculture is pursued, Peterson said.
“A key, key thing about Field to Market and this approach is that FTM is about measuring outcomes,” he said. “It isn’t about giving a checklist of best practices. There are a lot of sustainability initiatives that will go to the best practices checklist route. We are not saying that isn’t valuable, but we’ve found it turns off farmers. It assumes we know their work better than they do. For us, from the get go, it’s about measuring outcomes. That’s what we’ve done in Idaho.”
Still, taking measurements and effecting change are not the same things. In looking at the most effective potential ways to induce change among growers, Peterson believes firmly in what has always motivated him and the rest of his family at their Minnesota farm.
“Farmers are really motivated by their best farm neighbor,” he said. “We always wanted to outcompete Frank, our neighbor, who is a darned good farmer.”
Gathering data has generated what Peterson called “aha moments” in meeting with growers. For example, he said when the growers were told it requires 3,500 gallons of water to grow a single bushel of wheat, the initial reaction was disbelief.
“We took a timeout,” he said. “We got to thinking about this. How much pumping is required? How much energy? The next day we gathered to discuss the issue.”
The data, comparing many aspects of each grower’s farming practices while hiding the identities of the individual growers, have generated curiosity, Peterson said.
“Now we’re talking about improved best practices,” he said. “Now these farmers are interested because it is in their best interests. Not because General Mills asked them. That’s the power of what we are doing.”
For example, Peterson said 95% of the land in the pilot area of Idaho is irrigated and most of it using center-pivot irrigation (also called circle irrigation).
“There is technology that reduces water use and increases yields with variable rate irrigation technology,” he said. “You put it on your center pivot. It’s more intelligent. You spray to each zone in the field.
“The idea in Field to Market is how to scale this. It’s finding what I call the sweet spot that truly improves the environmental footprint in a way that satisfies the non-governmental organizations but still has to be practical.”
Ultimately, General Mills and Field to Market will continue gathering data within a geography to establish that what is being growing is sustainable, Peterson said.
Peterson is extremely hopeful about the approach being taken in the Idaho pilot project.
“We can replicate it elsewhere and hit that sweet spot demonstrating continuous improvement,” he said. “It gets into the psyche of the growers. They want to do it. They will make more money and improve the environmental footprint.”
Josh Sosland is editor of Milling & Baking News, sister publication of World Grain. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.