Climate

General Mills Takes Climate Change Seriously Because You Can’t Make Wheaties Without Wheat

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On Monday, General Mills — the sixth-largest food company in the world — announced plans to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 28 percent by 2025.

The announcement comes at a time when a growing number of major food companies are pledging to take more steps to encourage sustainability throughout their businesses. But General Mills’ plan is slightly unique, because it seeks to reduce carbon emissions throughout the company’s entire supply chain, from farm to landfill — a first for major food companies.

“Climate plays a significant role in the long-term viability of our business,” Jerry Lynch, vice president and chief sustainability officer at General Mills, said in an interview posted to the company’s official blog Monday. “As a global food company, we recognize the need to mitigate the risks climate change present to humanity, our environment and our livelihoods long term.”

Lynch called the decision to aim for a 28 percent reduction by 2025 “science-based,” taking into account what climate science says must be done to avoid the worst impacts from climate change. Post-2025, Lynch said, the company will work to reduce emissions by 50 to 70 percent — a goal that’s in line with what’s necessary to keep the world under 2°C of global warming, something that would threaten the company’s ability to reliable source crops and produce food.

“We think that human-caused greenhouse gas causes climate change and climate volatility and that’s going to stress the agricultural supply chain, which is very important to us,” General Mills’ CEO Ken Powell told the Associated Press in an interview ahead of the company’s official announcement. “Obviously we depend on that for our business, and we all depend on that for the food we eat.”

Within its own operations, General Mills announced it would invest more than $100 million towards clean energy and energy efficiency, in its manufacturing plants and throughout its transportation system. General Mills will also work to reduce emissions within its operations by using less cardboard and plastic in its packaging. The company has been working to curb its own greenhouse gas emissions since 2005, and has managed to decrease levels over the past decade by 13 percent.

But it also acknowledged that much of the greenhouse gas emissions related to its supply chain comes from places outside of its factories — from the farms where its raw materials are sourced. In 2013, General Mills committed to sourcing its 10 priority ingredients from sustainable sources by 2020. Under its new climate plan, the company promised to source products from an additional 250,000 acres of organic production by 2020.

John Church, the company’s senior vice president of global supply chain, told Minnesota Public Radio that the company’s largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, from an ingredient perspective, is milk. “In that supply chain,” he said, “it’s because the cows themselves create methane in their digestive process.” Church said that General Mills plans on working with dairy farmers to better manage methane from dairy production.

Lynch said on the company’s blog that the decision was made to announce the climate plans in advance of the United Nations Paris Climate Conference, which will take place this December. In a press release announcing the plan, Powell echoed Lynch’s hope of a move toward smarter climate policies by other food companies and producers.

“While our success depends on our actions, we cannot get there on our own,” Powell said. “We believe every company, government and individual has a role to play. Climate change is a shared, global challenge that is best addressed at scale.”

Earlier this summer, both Wal-Mart and Unilever announced programs aimed at curbing their greenhouse gas emissions. Unilever committed to sourcing 100 percent of its soy from farms that use practices to curb pollution by 2017, and would do the same for the rest of its raw agriculture commodities by 2020. Wal-Mart announced a new program that may curb greenhouse gas emissions by 11 million metric tons by 2020, the same as taking 2.3 million passenger vehicles off the road for an entire year.

At this years’ National Food Policy Conference, held in April, David Festa, head of the Environmental Defense Fund’s West Coast operations, spoke about the growing trend of food companies taking initiative to shape food policy, especially in terms of improving sustainability. He highlighted recent commitments by companies like Wal-Mart and Unilever as an example of the progress that can occur when companies use their economic power to exert pressure on the supply chain.

“Given the state of our planet we dont have a moment to lose,” Festa said. “This is the perfect moment for the private sector to lead.”