A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Champions of Breakfast: How Cereal-Makers Can Help Save Our Soil, Support Farmers, And Take a Bite Out of Climate Change,” claims companies committing to source more sustainable ingredients encourage farmers to build healthy soil.
“If cereal-makers, which are major buyers of grains, insisted on purchasing these ingredients from farms that employed regenerative practices, we’d likely see more farmers adopting those practices,” said Marcia DeLonge, senior scientist in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The organization points out that four companies—General Mills, Kellogg Company, Post Holdings, and Quaker Foods (a division of Pepsi-Co)—control 86% of the $8.5 billion cereal market. For their breakfast cereals and other food product lines, these companies purchase large quantities of corn, wheat, rice and oats.
The group claims that under the current system of farm policy incentives and purchasing contracts, grain farming is a “significant driver of water pollution, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, and heat-trapping emissions.”
UCS claims a large body of research shows a number of farming practices that can could alleviate these problems. A key factor would be inclusion of cover crops in a farm’s rotation. According to the organization, cover crops, more diverse crop rotations and prairie strips are a few soil-covering practices that make soils “spongier” and more able to absorb and hold carbon, water and nutrients.
With a focus on corn- and oat-based cereals, the group’s analysis claims that if a company purchased just the amount of corn used annually in Frosted Flakes from farms newly adopting cover crops and more diverse crop rotations, the company could transition up to 30,000 acres of cropland to a system that could prevent the loss of up to 12,150 metric tons of soil per year. The transition could also reduce nitrogen runoff by 44 metric tons, potentially saving nearly $830,000 in surface freshwater pollution costs.
The group goes on to say that if a company purchased the amount of oats used annually in Honey Nut Cheerios from farms newly adopting cover crops and more diverse crop rotations, the company could transition up to 180,000 acres of cropland to a system that could prevent the loss of up to 72,900 metric tons of soil per year. The transition could also reduce nitrogen runoff by 262 metric tons, potentially saving $5 million in freshwater pollution costs.
Natalie Hunt, teaching assistant professor, University of Minnesota, and an author of Iowa State crop rotation studies notes that there is growing evidence showing multiple benefits from more diverse cropping systems but noted that relatively few farmers have implemented them “in part because there there aren’t enough markets that value and compensate farmers for small grains..
Adds Hunt: “If leading companies committed to buying from farms that protect soil and water via crop diversification, however, farmers in Iowa and around the Midwest could more confidently adopt such systems."
The analysis recommends cereal-makers and other major grain purchasers establish or expand strong commitments to promote healthy-soil farming practices. In addition to changing their own purchasing commitments, food companies should also advocate for state and federal legislation that further incentivize and enable more farmers to profitably adopt these regenerative practices.