Once a pot of water is boiling, it takes less than 10 minutes to turn a box of Annie’s mac and cheese into a bowl of warm, creamy goodness. But that convenience belies a complex ongoing effort on the part of the organic food pioneer’s parent company, General Mills, to enable the product to do vastly more. The 154-year-old consumer packaged goods giant has emerged as a leading champion of regenerative farming practices, which sequester carbon in the soil rather than releasing it into the atmosphere, where it contributes to global warming.
As climate change imperils food systems around the world, disrupting the supply chains that General Mills relies on to make Cheerios cereals, Yoplait yogurts, and more, the company’s executives, looking to mitigate risk, have found themselves taking a closer look at the types of agricultural practices that trailblazing food companies like Annie’s—which the conglomerate acquired in 2014 for $820 million—have long advocated. Last year, General Mills publicly promised to “advance regenerative agricultural practices on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030.” (To put that figure in perspective, in the U.S. today there are just 5 million acres of organic farmland.) Now the company is leveraging its market power to spur change on farms both big and small. “Our business resilience depends on the health and well-being of Mother Nature,” says Mary Jane Melendez, chief sustainability and social impact officer for General Mills. “For us, it’s both a business and planetary imperative that we address [climate change], because we want to be in business for another 150 years.”
Mary Jane Melendez, chief sustainability and social impact officer for General Mills
It’s both a business and planetary imperative that we address [climate change], because we want to be in business for another 150 years”
Creating organic products on a scale like this is difficult. General Mills has often had to source ingredients overseas, where regulatory systems are far from perfect. In 2017, for example, The Washington Post discovered large shipments of corn and soybeans, originating in Ukraine and Turkey, that had been grown using pesticides but mysteriously labeled as organic during transit. In the U.S., meanwhile, many conventional farmers have been reluctant to convert to organic. While their land is in transition, a process that requires a painful three years as their soil goes “cold turkey,” they can’t sell to organic buyers and often see their yields fall dramatically. Even after gaining certification, it can sometimes take an additional three years before they can obtain insurance.
Consumers trust the “organic” label—an official USDA designation for two decades, promising no synthetic pesticides or growth hormones—and continue to buy organic food in slowly increasing numbers. But while organic foods might be better for people’s health, they’re not designed to be better for the planet’s. To combat climate change, General Mills believes it will need to not only support the expansion of organic farmland but also lead the industry toward the idea of regenerative agriculture, a term that goes beyond pesticide elimination to encompass practices with the power to enrich soils, restore watersheds, and more. “Regenerative” has no official criteria, and (relatedly) low consumer awareness. For General Mills, that could be an opportunity. Through a self-assessment tool for farmers, the company is collecting data on three aspects of regenerative agriculture: farmer resilience, soil health, and biodiversity. Being able to show Annie’s customers how their purchases are helping in these areas could be a distinct competitive advantage.
“I don’t think it’s enough just to be natural or just to be organic,” says Emily Thomas, who oversees Annie’s in her role as managing director of natural and organic for General Mills. “It’s not going to be enough to win the marketplace going forward.”
Ground Warfare: Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere contributes to global warming. Regenerative agriculture traps carbon dioxide in the soil.
Gunsmoke Farms, a massive 34,000-acre site west of Pierre, South Dakota, is a key location for General Mills’s experimentation with regenerative agriculture. Annie’s signed a strategic sourcing agreement with investment firm Sixth Street not long after Sixth Street bought Gunsmoke, in 2017. After three years of building soil health through planting legume cover crops and other regenerative practices, Gunsmoke received its USDA organic certification in July, making it one of the largest organic conversions ever achieved in the U.S. The organic hard red spring wheat that Gunsmoke produces will make its way into the pasta in Annie’s mac and cheese—a rare direct buy from an industry that typically relies on intermediaries. Over time, Gunsmoke’s use of crop rotations and pollinator habitats will further sink carbon deep into the property’s claylike soil and help make it an entirely regenerative farm.
As always with farming, nature has had ideas of its own. Cover crop alfalfa, for example, has run rampant in some areas of the farm. Last year, 30 inches of rain fell—twice the typical amount, and in bursts punctuated by micro-droughts. Then COVID-19 arrived, grounding many organic inspectors and putting Gunsmoke’s certification process on hold. Chad Hutchinson, managing director at Sixth Street and a former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, has learned to expect the unexpected with agricultural investments. “You have to have a long-term perspective and great partners, because you’re going to have years when it doesn’t go well,” he says.
Nonetheless, the first harvest of Gunsmoke organic wheat will show up in the brand’s colorful mac and cheese boxes in December, around the same time that redesigned packaging is scheduled to hit grocery shelves. “Goodness starts in the soil. So we grow our yumminess from the ground up,” reads the text on the back of the revamped mac and cheese box. Competition in the mac and cheese category is cutthroat, and kids, as many parents can attest, are the world’s pickiest customers. But when it comes to protecting the planet they are destined to inherit, it’s well that they should be.