Mary Jane Melendez

Chief Sustainability and Social Impact Officer, 

General Mills

Our Director Erin Callahan caught up with Mary Jane Melendez from General Mills about their regenerative agriculture work and their plans for the future! Read their conversation below.

Onstage at Climate Day in 2019, General Mills announced an ambitious commitment to transition one million acres to regenerative agriculture by 2030--in what I believe was the largest commitment that had been made to date on regenerative agriculture. Since then, you've launched pilot projects and a self-assessment tool and made good progress toward your goal.

To ground us in the project, can you speak to what crops and regions this work covers?

We currently have three regenerative agriculture pilots underway in our key sourcing regions: an oat pilot in the Northern Plains region which covers North Dakota and the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan; a wheat pilot in the Southern Plains of Kansas; and a dairy pilot in the Great Lakes Region, specifically Michigan.

What have you learned so far in building out and implementing the project? What have been the biggest factors for success?

We’ve always known that it will take time to deliver positive outcomes and change farmer mindset, but we’ve now been able to experience more of the challenges firsthand. Many producers feel the pressure from family and neighbors to continue management consistent with previous generations and the local community. Additionally, some producers are looking to the coaches to prescribe specific actions and practices for their operation rather than applying regenerative principles to their unique farm context. We’re seeing the most successful participants embrace a regenerative mindset to develop experiments aligned with their risk tolerance and financial position. Having a strong network of other farmers to lean on as well as a regenerative coach is proving to be integral to early success. 

How are the pilots coming along? Have there been stories or progress that have helped solidify the value of these transitions?

Farm_Tour_learning_in_the_field.jpgThe pilots are going well and we’re learning a lot. We’ve heard from a number of producers that 1:1 technical assistance has been extremely helpful. Some have shared how they see regenerative ag as the future of their farm but aren’t quite sure how to start or take the next step and having that mentorship has helped them start down the path. We also believe farmers see value in our holistic and scientific approach focused on measuring impact farm profitability, soil health, water, and biodiversity. 

Can you speak a bit to General Mills' approach to regenerative ag? i.e. You've taken a very tailored, outcomes-based approach that allows farmers to assess transitions based on their particular needs.

We are on a journey to make a meaningful difference through Regenerative Agriculture, which we define as holistic, principles-based approach to farming and ranching that seeks to strengthen ecosystems and community resilience. We believe that Regenerative Agriculture works best when the farming or ranching operation is viewed as an ecosystem. 

Our approach seeks to drive improvements in the following outcomes: economic resiliency in farming communities, soil health, water, biodiversity, and cow and herd well-being (on dairy operations). If we can demonstrate improvements across these five outcomes, our hope is that we can help drive greater adoption.

The self-assessment tool was made to be intentionally open-source. Have you seen broad uptake on it? How would you like others in the industry to use it?

We’re thrilled to see producers outside of our network leveraging the open-source tool. To date, about half of responses to the survey have come from producers outside of our sourcing network, representing 170,000 acres across 10 different countries. We’re encouraged to see this level of engagement from diverse producers seeking to understand how their operations align with the principles of regenerative agriculture. Making this tool open-source is one way that we’re embracing an “all-boats-must-rise” philosophy when it comes to advancing collective impact across the industry.

First and foremost, we hope the tool is useful for producers to assess where they are on their regenerative agriculture journey. We also designed the tool to be used by other companies seeking to gain visibility to the farm level of their supply chain. It’s been energizing to see many of our peers leverage the tool directly or to help design their own grower surveys.

 How does this work fit within General Mills' larger climate work?

Sorghum1_field_photo_credit_Steve_R.JPGAgriculture represents more than 50% of our greenhouse gas footprint across our entire value chain. With that, we know that our work to advance regenerative agriculture is paramount to how we achieve greenhouse gas reduction targets. We also appreciate that regenerative agriculture confers climate resilience benefits to growers well beyond greenhouse reduction and carbon drawdown. With increasingly frequent and acute reminders of climate change at producers’ doorsteps, we’re encouraged by the potential of regenerative agriculture to provide resilience to threats like flooding, extreme heat, pests, and drought.

What's next for the project and your climate work?

During Climate Week, we realigned our commitment from 2015 to a more aggressive target, which is consistent with how we have approached our business for over 150 years and lived one of our core values – to do the right thing all the time. Our science-based target is that we commit to reducing absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 30% across our full value chain over the next decade, and net zero by 2050. And while our greatest impact is outside our four walls – in agriculture, ingredients, and packaging - we know we have a role to play in helping to restore planetary health.

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