Environmental impact

In this section:

Pesticides, food safety and ecosystems health

At General Mills, our business relies on the availability of safe, high-quality ingredients and the sustainability of the agriculture supply chain that provides them. That’s why we focus on responsible sourcing that aims to improve the environmental, social and economic impacts of our raw materials. This approach is closely-aligned with our core values and helps us meet our consumers’ growing desire to understand the link between the food they purchase and its origin.

We recognize that some consumers and stakeholders have concerns about pesticides. In today’s global agriculture system, where plant pests and diseases are responsible for losses of 20 to 40 percent of all food production, farmers rely on pesticides, fertilizers and other tools to protect crops and grow ingredients for the foods we eat. As a key participant in this system, food safety is always our number one priority, and we maintain a comprehensive system of controls and processes to ensure the highest-level of product quality and safety. We are also focused on responsible sourcing practices that improve the environmental, social and economic well-being of the people and areas from which we source our raw materials. To secure the long-term availability of the ingredients we need to make our products, we have long been a leader in sustainable agriculture practices that, among other things, directly reduce the amount of pesticides used in our supply chain.

Food Safety is the #1 priority for General Mills

Managing potential issues with pesticide residue in ingredients is a core part of our approach to food safety. Leading with safety in the food we make is the foundational operating principle of our business. We take a systematic approach to safety focusing on prevention, intervention and response. This approach is integrated into all our processes, and we work across our supply chain and with global regulatory agencies to ensure safety in pesticide use. Within our supply chain, we use inventory controls and supplier management systems that include the ability to trace the sources of our ingredients, which is key to isolating risks in the event of any food safety concerns.

Within production facilities, we conduct internal risk-based surveillance and food safety testing to identify and prioritize specific areas of risk. Our Global Internal Audit team periodically audits the effectiveness and efficiency of food safety controls and operating procedures. Results are reported to the company’s Global Governance Council and Board of Directors. We freely share our best practices and emerging areas of concern, as well as collaborate with industry peers and regulators to help raise safety standards industry-wide. Learn more about our food safety investments, supplier trainings, and collaboration here.

Government agencies around the world carefully monitor and set regulatory limits for pesticide residues. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) researches pesticides before they are approved for use and sets strict tolerance levels for pesticide residues in foods. These tolerance levels are then enforced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Similar procedures are replicated across all developed economies, and to assist all other nations across the world, the Joint WHO/FAO Codex Alimentarius sets residue limits for pesticides based on their assessment by a team of internationally recognized experts.

At General Mills, our practices and processes ensure that all of our products are safe and comply with all regulatory limits. Recognizing that our products are only as safe as the ingredients in them, we utilize supplier trainings and audits to proactively manage our ingredient quality and safety standards. Farmers in our supply chain are careful to comply with the permitted uses of pesticides. To further ensure the safety of our products, for raw oats, we maintain a rigorous process of de-hulling, cleaning and flaking prior to use as ingredients in our products.

Globally-recognized food safety leadership

Our processes and dedication to ensuring food safety have led to global recognition for General Mills. In 2019, we were honored to receive the 2019 International Association of Food Protection Black Pearl Award. The prestigious Black Pearl Award is awarded to companies in recognition of food safety excellence. The nomination criteria is robust and recipients must show objective evidence of a commitment to food safety both across their organizations and externally.

In conjunction with NASA more than 30 years ago, General Mills developed HACCP - the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points process for ensuring food safety.

Today, HACCP is the food industry's gold standard.

We are Working to Reduce the Need for Synthetic Pesticides

In addition to our strict regulatory compliance and food safety standards, we are committed to protecting and regenerating the land from which our ingredients are grown. Recognizing that synthetic pesticides may harm beneficial insects including pollinators, or drift beyond a farmer’s field, affecting nearby fields and ecosystems, we are actively working across our value chain to limit these unintended and potentially harmful impacts. We have strategies in place to reduce synthetic pesticide use, and we work with trusted agronomists and other experts to implement continuous improvement practices throughout our supply chain. Our commitments to regenerative agriculture, Integrated Pest Management (IPM), organic acreage expansion, and pollinators not only support healthy ecosystems and soil health, but also directly reduce farmer reliance on pesticides and other agrochemicals. Learn more about each area of focus in the sections that follow.

Pesticide Reduction Strategy #1: Regenerative Agriculture

We are on a journey to make a meaningful difference through regenerative agriculture, which we define as agriculture that protects and intentionally enhances natural resources and farming communities. In 2019, we publicly announced an ambitious goal to advance regenerative agriculture on one million acres of farmland by 2030 – estimated to be more than 20% of our Global sourcing footprint and roughly the size of the Grand Canyon. Among its many benefits, regenerative agriculture suppresses pests by rebuilding natural pest cycles to significantly reduce the need for synthetic pesticides. To realize the full potential of regenerative agriculture on a large scale, we encourage all farmers – organic and conventional – to consider adopting a regenerative approach to agricultural management.

Our goal: Advance regenerative agriculture on one million acres of farmland by 2030 - estimated to be more than 20% of our North American sourcing footprint.

Our approach: We aim to connect principles of regenerative agriculture to outcomes across four key areas: Biodiversity, healthy soil, farmer economic resilience and water.

Our key principles: We encourage six key principles of regenerative agriculture that promote healthy soil and reduce the need for synthetic pesticides and fertilizer.

Six core principles of regenerative agriculture appearing in images with text explaining each listed below.

Video: Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture and a hopeful solution to climate change.

To begin advancing our one million Regenerative Acre commitment, we have partnered with Understanding Ag, and have initiated phase one of our Regenerative Agriculture Program, including: 

  1. Multi-day workshops to educate farmers on the principles of regenerative agriculture to date with 200 farms representing over 250,000 acres. 
  2. One-on-one technical support to transition to regenerative agricultural systems (and adaptive grazing systems where relevant) with:
    1. 45 farmers across the Northern Plains (North Dakota, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) equating to approximately 50,000 acres.
    2. 24 wheat farmers across the Southern Plains (Kansas) equating to approximately 17,000 acres.
    3. 3 dairies in the Great Lakes Region (Western Michigan) equating to approximately 1,500 acres.
  3. Soil health, biodiversity, water, and economic analysis on one field per farm over 3+ years to assess key outcomes associated with transitions to regenerative systems.
  4. Collective research about the links between farm management, soil health, water use and quality, different forms of biodiversity, and animal wellbeing (dairy)

Measuring the Impact of Regenerative Agriculture

During fiscal 2018, General Mills developed a Regenerative Agriculture Measurement Protocol to determine the impact of agricultural management on soil health throughout our network of regenerative farmers and ranchers. We plan to publish the results of our work on an annual basis to allow for year-over-year comparisons.

Northern Plains Spotlight: We are sampling and measuring soil from 51 farms across three regions, the Red River Valley in Manitoba, Western Manitoba/North Dakota, and Eastern Saskatchewan. Of those 51 farms, 45 are receiving regenerative agriculture coaching that has been customized specifically for their fields. Six remaining farms, two per region, will serve as conventional control farms that will be used for comparison against the regenerative farms over time. The following chart lays out the measurement specifics, partners and frequency.

As part of our approach to understand on-farm impact, we launched the General Mills Regenerative Agriculture Self-Assessment, a tool to help farmers understand how their practices align with the five recognized principles of regenerative agriculture. Learn more about our work to advance Regenerative Agriculture at www.generalmills.com/regenag.

Soil Health Research and Investment

Improved soil health is the cornerstone of regenerative agriculture. Our regenerative agriculture commitment is the product of our much broader long-term partnerships and investments in soil health initiatives. We know that more than 99 percent of our food starts from the soil, and General Mills has invested more than $5.5 million in initiatives to advance soil health on U.S. agricultural lands as you can see in our 2020 Global Responsibility Report. Some of our recent soil health initiatives are set forth below.

In partnership with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), we published ReThink Soil: A Roadmap to Soil Health.
We made a three-year, $2 million commitment to TNC, the Soil Health Institute and the Soil Health Partnership to develop tools and resources to help farmers, landowners and supply chain leaders achieve widespread adoption of soil health practices.
We granted $735,000 to the National Wheat Foundation to support soil health research and educational outreach on wheat farms.
We advanced commercialization of Kernza, a perennial grain with deep roots that shows promise in increasing soil health, carbon sequestration, water infiltration and biodiversity, through partnerships with the University of Minnesota, Forever Green Initiative, and The Land Institute.

Video: Regenerative Farmer & Rancher, Will Harris, shares his story on agrochemical reduction

Based out of Georgia, Will Harris of White Oak Pastures, is a fourth-generation rancher who's seen both sides of the industry. Will spent much of his early career running White Oak Pastures as a conventional, industrial farm, but for the past 20 years he has adopted practices that have made him a leader in the regenerative agriculture movement. Will is a supplier for our EPIC brand and sets the gold standard for holistic land management.

Pesticide Reduction Strategy #2: Integrated Pest Management

By minimizing the threat of crop damage by pests, Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques can reduce or eliminate the need to use synthetic pesticides on crops. General Mills has been a leader in supporting IPM practices for decades. We fund IPM research, publicly share our results and work with our suppliers and conservation organizations to drive progress. IPM is a scientific, ecosystem-based approach that focuses on pest prevention for the long-term by combining techniques that include changes in farming practices, biological pest control, habitat management and the use of pest-resistant seed varieties. When applying IPM strategies, farmers use synthetic pesticides only after monitoring indicates they are needed to prevent damage to their crops. In all cases, pest control inputs are applied in a way that limits risks to human health, nontargeted organisms, and the environment.

Principles of Integrated Pest Management

  1. Prevent pest problems before they start with soil and site preparation tactics
  2. If pests arise, identify the problem pest
  3. Monitor and assess number of pests and potential damage
  4. Refer to guidelines for management action needed
  5. Combine program techniques to best manage pests (see table below)
  6. After taking action, assess the effects of pest management techniques
Program Techniques What that Means
Biological control Biological control means using the many beneficial natural enemies already at work —predators, parasites, pathogens, and competitors—to control pests and adding additional biologicals if needed.
Cultural controls Cultural controls include practices that disrupt a pest's environment, for example, changing irrigation practices can reduce pest problems, since excess water can increase root disease and weeds.
Pest trapping & soil preparation Using traps and soil barriers can eliminate pests, block pests out, or make the environment unsuitable for them. Soil barriers include mulches for weed management, steam sterilization of the soil for disease management, or barriers such as screens to keep birds or insects out.
Chemical controls  In IPM, pesticides are used only when needed and in combination with other approaches for more effective, long-term control. Growers select the most effective pesticides and apply in a way that minimizes possible harm to people, nontargeted organisms, and the environment. Growers look for the safest option for surrounding organisms and for air, soil, and water quality.

As part of our effort to expand the broad understanding of pesticide use, we’ve retained the IPM Institute of North America to deliver relevant industry updates, help shape General Mills’ sustainability strategies, and educate supplier and farmer partners within our supply chain. In fiscal 2017, we commissioned an analysis by the IPM Institute of North America to specifically assess the scope of IPM adoption and pesticide use throughout our North American supply chains for four major crops: corn, oats, soybeans, and wheat. 

Crop Pesticide active ingredients used per acre (Total North America Average)*
Oats 3 lbs per acre
Wheat 4 lbs per acre
Corn 21 lbs per acre
Soybeans 23 lbs per acre

*IPM Institute of North America, 2017

We are using and sharing the results of this study to better inform our approach to IPM adoption across our supply chain. The study has also supported our continuous improvement work to lead grower training programs and workshops through our sustainable sourcing engagements in oats, wheat, dry milled corn, and sugar beets based around the Field to Market Field Print Calculator. We delivered these workshops in partnership with our key suppliers as well as the IPM Institute of North America. The goals and objectives of the workshops include working with suppliers to identify and prioritize challenges and opportunities for improving practices and outcomes. To date, we’ve completed seven workshops with a total of 95 farms completing surveys developed by the IPM Institute and General Mills. These farmers represent approximately 136,000 acres of wheat and sugar beet production. Moving forward, we plan to survey sustainability participants annually to better understand IPM practice adoption, identify opportunities for improvement, and more meaningfully connected integrated pest management to regenerative agriculture approaches.

Grower survey results

Most valuable IPM practices for wheat were

  • scouting for weeds (70%)
  • soil testing (60%)
  • scouting for insects/disease (60%)
  • crop rotation (60%)
  • targeting weed seedlings (50%)
  • resistant varieties (50%)

Most valuable IPM practices for sugar beets were

  • three-year crop rotation (70%)
  • scouting for insects/diseases (60%)
  • zero tolerance for weed escapes (60%)
  • scouting for weeds (60%)
  • resistant varieties (60%)
  • rotate fungicide mode of action (60%)
  • rotate modes of action for Cercospora (60%)
  • tank mixing for Cercospora (60%)
  • multiple herbicide modes of action (50%)
  • pest/disease development models (50%) 

Pesticide Reduction Strategy #3: Expanding Organic Acreage 

General Mills is dedicated to increasing the long-term capacity of our organic supply chain and expanding organic acreage. These efforts align with our growth objectives, consumer demand and our commitment to regenerative agriculture. We are now the 2nd largest branded natural and organic food producer in the U.S..

Organic Agriculture presents a significant opportunity to reduce pesticide use. According to the USDA organic standards synthetic substances are prohibited for crop and livestock production unless specifically allowed, and non-synthetic substances are allowed for crop and livestock production unless specifically prohibited. Some substances on the National List may only be used in specific situations e.g., only for certain crops or up to a maximum amount. Our commitment to increase organic acreage has a quantifiable impact on synthetic pesticide use.

 Pounds of Pesticide Use Avoided Per Year (U.S.)
2015 2016 2017 2018 2019
345,000 386,400 488,750  575,000  500,000

Since 2000, we have steadily grown our organic business with new products and brand acquisitions. We are partnering with suppliers to promote continuous improvement within organic farming and have committed $150,000 through 2022 to conduct soil testing, host field days, share best practices and remove hurdles to advancing the organic movement. We have also partnered with innovative farmers to create limited edition items with organic ingredients and using regenerative practices. Watch a video featuring those farmers: Our Food Choices Matter.

In fiscal 2018, General Mills and Gunsmoke Farms LLC signed an agreement to convert 34,000 acres of conventional farmland to certified organic acreage by 2020. Located west of Pierre, South Dakota, the farm will grow certified organic wheat and other organic crops as part of a diverse rotation. General Mills plans to use the wheat to make Annie’s pasta products, including its signature Macaroni & Cheese.

As part of this agreement, General Mills has partnered with Midwestern BioAg to provide on-the-ground mentorship for the farm operators to advance leading regenerative soil management principles. In addition, nearly 3,000 acres of pollinator habitat will be planted throughout the farm in partnership with the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (Xerces Society). This type of long-term, direct contracting is unprecedented for General Mills and the industry. This agreement further encourages organic conversion by providing certainty and security for farmers and landowners in making a transition of this magnitude.

See more about our organic farming industry collaboration, research and advancement efforts here.

Pesticide Reduction Strategy #4: Promoting Pollinator Health

Thirty-five percent of crop production worldwide relies on pollinators such as bees, birds and butterflies. Diverse native populations of bees and other insects are a sign of healthy and productive ecosystems.

We also work with our suppliers and leading conservationists to conserve and expand bee habitats, and we fund research to better support the recovery of honeybees. In fiscal 2017, we launched a five-year project with the USDA and the Xerces Society to protect and establish healthy pollinator habitats. General Mills is donating $400,000 each year, matched by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) division of the USDA for a total of $4 million over five years. These funds support eight full-time NRCS field biologists who assist growers in implementing pollinator habitats. As of December 2019, we more than doubled our commitment of 100,000 acres. General Mills has restored and protected more than 207,000 acres of pollinator habitat to date. Learn more about these beneficial insects in this video: We Need the Bees.

Since 2011, General Mills and our brands have been educating consumers and have invested more than $6 million to support pollinator habitat and research efforts. For a breakdown of our partnerships and commitments, click here.