Why General Mills, The Nature Conservancy Say Soil Is Sexy. Did We Mention $50 Billion in Benefits?

by | Nov 21, 2016

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soilGeneral Mills has been busy these past few months, pledging to halve its food waste by 2030, urging president-elect Donald Trump not to cancel the Paris climate agreement, and collaborating with other food giants to reduce suppliers’ water use and improve sustainable agriculture practices.

The food company has also set its sights on something really sexy: improving soil health.

OK, maybe it’s not as sexy as food waste or Donald Trump. But healthy soils could deliver nearly $50 billion in annual economic benefits, according to General Mills and The Nature Conservancy, which have launched a 10-point roadmap to achieve this goal.

Michael Doane, director of transforming working lands for The Nature Conservancy, says less than 10 percent of US soils managed optimally today.

“It’s not as sexy as saying, ‘hey let’s go save that mountaintop,’” Doane admitted in an interview. “But if we don’t get soil management right, it’s hard to imagine that other things that we care about will happen.”

Healthy soils can also yield economic benefits for farmers and food companies, said Jerry Lynch, chief sustainability officer at General Mills. If the Soil Health Roadmap’s 10 steps were adopted on 50 percent of US cropland by 2025, farmers would see a $1.2 billion annual net economic gain in addition to $7.4 billion in water and climate benefits.

“Our total business model is highly dependent on mother nature’s systems continuing to work well,” Lynch said in an interview. “On the environmental side, [the Soil Health Roadmap] has the ability to improve water quality, improve water retention on farms, improve nutrient retention and to actually sequester carbon in the soil. At the same time the farmer benefits from a more resilient farm. A farm that has really good soil quality is more resilient in dry years and also more resilient in wet years.

“And beyond resilience, when the farm is eventually sold or passed on, it will have a better underlying asset value,” Lynch continued. “It’s absolutely financial math at the end of the day.”

A team of The Nature Conservancy scientists, economists and agriculture experts developed the Soil Health Roadmap, funded by General Mills. Its 10 steps to healthy soils include science (such as create cost-effective soil health measurement standards and tools), economic (like aligning incentives between landowners and farmers) and policy (rewarding farmers who optimize long-term soil health with lower crop insurance premiums) priorities.

At full adoption, Conservancy scientists estimate nearly $50 billion in societal benefits could be realized annually. At 50 percent adoption, improved soil health would provide $7.4 billion in water and climate benefits. These benefits include:

  • Mitigating 25 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions
  • Reducing 344 million pounds of nutrient loss to the environment
  • Eliminating 116 million metric tons of soil erosion
  • Creating 3.6 million acre-feet of available water capacity in cropland soils

The Roadmap also makes the business case for investing in sustainable soil health practices.

“It’s really anchored in the idea that nothing is going to scale out around conservation priorities if there aren’t specific economic or other benefits that landowners and farmers would value — that’s what makes it so compelling,” Doane said. “We worked hard to understand if the conservation gains would be sizeable enough and we were very happy to see that the size of those conservation gains are compelling: clean water, sequestering carbon, soil retention, improving productivity, conserving water. But you don’t get to scale unless there are net economic benefits for the principle actors in the system, in this case mainly landowners and farmers.”

In the area of economic, for example, current business models between landowners, farmers and agricultural retailers do not incentivize soil health management.

“Our analysis shows that up to 60 percent of the land farmers are managing is owned by someone other than the farmer,” Doane said. “Landowners are often absentee — living in urban areas, or institutions that do not have the day-to-day operating framework for the farm.”

Conservation practices to restore soil health may require high capital costs for farmers, who are only leasing the land an unlikely to see a return on their investment for several years.

“If we are going to get to scale to 50 percent or 60 percent or greater adoption of these practices, that issue will have to be resolved — a new economic enlightenment between farmers and landowners around soil health,” Doane said.

General Mills has already begun incorporating some of these things into its work with suppliers, such as encouraging them to measure soil loss, availability and carbon, Lynch said.

“For example, we have for a number of years worked with our suppliers and farmers around our commitment to sustainable source 10 priority ingredients by 2020,” he explained. “As we have been working with suppliers and farmers in that process, we’ve been encouraging them to use the Field to Market Calculator and that has soil measurements in it. That engenders conversations about how to improve soils and environmental benefits.”

Another example is General Mill’s participation in the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, launched in September, whose other founding members include Cargill, Environmental Defense Fund, Kellogg, Monsanto, PepsiCo, The Nature Conservancy, Walmart and World Wildlife Fund. The partnership that aims to help farmers improve their bottom line while conserving natural resources through sustainable agriculture practices. Its initial efforts are focusing on soil health and water management.

Moving forward with the Soil Health Roadmap will require major buy-in from farmers, landowners, food companies and NGOs, and Doane said The Nature Conservancy is having conversations with all of the above.

“We are working really hard to take a topic like this that could be rather obscure and put a whole new emphasis on it,” he said. “It’s going to require a much more diverse set of folks who maybe haven’t thought of soil as our greatest conservation.”

In other words: making soil sexy.

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