Why General Mills Is Turning to ‘Throwback’ Farming to Fight Climate Change

October 17, 2018, 6:07 PM UTC

To fight climate change, General Mills is looking to its past.

The 152-year-old food company is turning to “a throwback of classic, old farming practices” combined with new methods to contribute to a more sustainable future for the food industry, according to Carla Vernón, president of its natural and organic operating unit. That means expanding its organic acreage and implementing regenerative farming practices with perennial grains, cover crops, and pollinator habitats.

“If we mean to stay in the food business at General Mills, then this problem that we’re facing, that we have been a participant in we realize now, we have to make positive contributions,” Vernón said.

Vernón made the remarks while speaking on a panel with Liam Condon, president of the crop science division at Bayer AG, and Murad Al-Katib, president and CEO of the lentil, bean, and chickpea processor AGT Food and Ingredients, at Fortune Global Forum in Toronto Wednesday. Their discussion centered on the future of food supply and security amid growing populations and environmental challenges.

While General Mills—which owns natural food brands Annie’s and Cascadian Farm—is relying on parts of its history in concert with new methods, other companies are more bullish on technological innovation as the primary solution.

“Farming in the old days was a disaster,” Condon said. “No farmer will go back to the way things used to be.”

But farmers might still draw on old methods, like circular and regenerative farming, he noted. Al-Katib said he sees technological innovation through satellite imagery, the internet of things, and big data as the best way to help the food industry—from shelf brands to ingredient providers—meet the challenges of this century and the next.

Those technological innovations, however, require increased acceptance from consumers.

“The technology is way ahead of the consumer acceptance,” Condon said. “What we need to do is invest much more time in explaining what the benefits are of certain technologies, both from a nutritional and an environmental point of view.”

But looking to the past and working on new technologies aren’t mutually exclusive.

“All of this is really an experiment for us,” Vernón said. “We consider this form of returning to some of our old practices a form of innovation.”

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