‘Last 10% is always the hardest’: Inside General Mills’ push for sourcing, agriculture and communities

By Kristine Sherred

- Last updated on GMT

General Mills has committed to reaching 100% sustainability by 2020 for its 10 ‘priority’ ingredients, which comprise 40% of its total purchasing. Pic: Getty Images/Stephan Zirwes
General Mills has committed to reaching 100% sustainability by 2020 for its 10 ‘priority’ ingredients, which comprise 40% of its total purchasing. Pic: Getty Images/Stephan Zirwes

Related tags General mills Sustainability Sustainable agriculture Sustainable Development Goals Sustainable cocoa regenerative agriculture Climate change Environment Global food security

According to its 2019 Global Responsibility Report, the Minneapolis, Minnesota-based company sources 85% of its top ten ingredients in responsible ways.

It has achieved these metrics by focusing on soil health, regenerative agriculture and economic stability for its farmers along with it – but the next 18 months will determine the legacy of the company’s long-term vision.

Outgoing sustainability chief Jerry Lynch, who has held the role since 2010, said to get there, General Mills has opted to view itself not just as a cereal company but as a food company.

“We are highly dependent on Mother Nature, farming communities, consumers and a workforce that is all engaged, healthy, well and driving toward a sustainable future,” ​he told BakeryandSnacks.

The Minneapolis, Minnesota-based company is now 153 years old, and Lynch said it intends to be around for another century or more.

As such, the company has focused on the ‘interrelated’ areas of regenerative agriculture, climate change, sustainable sourcing, food security and food waste.

Lynch described regenerative agriculture as the foundation of better farming, one that pushes other benefits – like a lower carbon footprint – forward by association, which he said is ‘game-changing’ for the industry.

“It’s very rare that you identify a lever or a catalyst that moves so many things positively. It improves farmer profitability [and] the resilience of farmer communities; it improves greenhouse gas footprints, biodiversity on land and below the soil; and it improves water management.”

“Healthy soil is really kind of the anchor point where everything starts,” ​he said.

Getting the Top 10 to 100%

In 2013, General Mills committed to reaching 100% sustainability by 2020 for its 10 ‘priority’ ingredients, including oats, US-grown wheat, corn, cocoa, vanilla and sugar beets. Together, these categories account for 40% of the company’s total purchasing.

Last year, the company reported it had achieved at least 80% sustainability in eight of those ten commodities, five of which are above 90%. Only vanilla remains an Achilles heel, falling from 45% in 2014 to 32% last year.

“We’re in a lot of different categories, so we really had to prioritize the work,”​ said Lynch, noting General Mills had not previously made a public commitment of this magnitude.

For commodity grains, sustainability means ‘continuous improvement’ based on environmental metrics, with at least 25% of land acreage regularly audited. The company has drastically improved its sourcing for oats, which jumped from 35% to 90% in 2018, as well as US-grown wheat and corn, which jumped from 15% and 6%, respectively, to about three-quarters for both.

Cocoa, vanilla, sugarcane and palm oil must meet both environmental and social standards of sustainability.

These ingredients tend to originate in impoverished regions with ‘fragile’ supply chains, where corruption and child labor remain pervasive problems, said Mary Jane Mendelez, incoming chief sustainability and social impact officer.

She will take up the reigns of the General Mills Foundation, the cereal giant’s philanthropic arm that supports training, education and community development programs around the world.

“We’ve seen the power of having these investments side by side,”​ she told BakeryandSnacks.

Her team leads efforts to train farmers in regenerative agriculture and crop diversification, while building schools and “actually [investing to improve] community livelihoods,” ​added Mendelez.

“We saw more holistic improvement in being very targeted. It put a light bulb on that we could drive greater impact faster by having these organizations under one umbrella.”

In 2014, General Mills sourced only 10% of its cocoa sustainably, which it defines through direct investment in smallholder farmers as well as bean quality. Last year, it reached 90% per its sustainability metrics.

Report highlights

  • 13%​ decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, compared to 2010
  • 90%​ of solid waste recycled or processed for recovery
  • 99%​ of fiber packaging made from recycled material or virgin wood fiber without deforestation
  • 100%​ of worldwide facilities audited or certified for food safety by independent third parties
  • 49%​ of company’s professional positions globally held by women

Working together in the supply chain

Suppliers play a major role here, said Lynch.

“There are very few places in this supply chain where we’re buying directly from a farmer. [Suppliers have] been really open and receptive to go on this learning journey with us,” ​said Lynch.

General Mills first publicly committed to sustainable palm oil in 2014, but after receiving complaints, the company urged its suppliers to cut ties with alleged two culprits of deforestation – Indofoods and Salim Group. General Mills also published the names of its eight direct suppliers of palm oil, such as Cargill, AAK and Bunge Loders Croklaan.

A vast majority of suppliers, Lynch added, are ‘on a very similar train.’

In cocoa-producing countries, for example, General Mills’ sustainability program complements Cargill’s Cocoa Promise, Barry Callebaut’s Cocoa Horizons and Olam’s Livelihood Charter. In Madagascar – the world’s leading producer of vanilla – it works with supplier Virginia Dare and the Sustainable Vanilla Initiative.

For oats, wheat and sugar beets, it teams up with growers throughout the Midwestern US and Canada, such as Paterson Grain, Archer Daniels Midland and American Crystal Sugar.

“Our strong preference is that suppliers go on the journey with us because we need the industry to continue to transform itself,”​ he added, noting “the whole industry is going in this direction.”

Going forward, Lynch said the “remote, small, challenging" ​details of the last 10% will be General Mills' priorities in the next 12 to 18 months, followed by incrementally picking away at the other 60% of purchasing – ingredients like cinnamon or packaging such as plastic lids.

“We’re in that last bit of the stuff that’s always the hardest,” ​admitted Lynch.

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