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General Mills sustainability chief: Healthy food needs healthy soil

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A field of perennial wheatgrass called Kernza.
A research plot of Kernza, a perennial grain, is shown at the University of Minnesota as part of the U's Forever Green Initiative. General Mills has provided financial support to the program, which develops crops that promote soil health.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

General Mills executive Jerry Lynch says his company is out to do something that sounds simple: Make food that people love. 

"We take the output of Mother Nature and farming communities, we transform it into products for consumers to get the nutrition they want in the midst of their busy lives, and we market it to them," he said.

But as the global food giant's chief sustainability officer, Lynch is watching that process, from farm to package to table, very closely. And what he sees, he told agribusiness and food industry leaders gathered in Minneapolis on Thursday, concerns him. 

"If the front end of that engine — Mother Nature and farming communities — starts to break down, our business becomes either really expensive to operate, or sometimes impossible to operate because we can't get what we need in order to make those products," he said.

What he's talking about: Climate change. Soil erosion and degradation. Extreme weather events that wipe out crops.

Healthy soil, Lynch said, can help with all of those problems: It stores carbon. It has microbes that make nutrients more available to plants, helping them grow. And healthy soil is sponge-like; it can absorb and hold water rather than letting it run off the land. 

"I was with a farmer not too long ago in North Dakota who told me that he can absorb a 9-inch-per-hour rain event on his farm and not get any runoff," he told the crowd. "That's a really unique situation, but it just demonstrates the potential of healthy soil."

Besides carrying a farmer through a drought or flood, healthy soil also can also reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizer, which cost money and can increase a crop's carbon footprint. 

Can healthy soil save farmers and the Earth? Those who say it can are building momentum. Newly published books on the topic are raising awareness. And, Lynch said, The New York Times Magazine recently published a cover story called "Can Dirt Save the Earth?" That kind of large-scale attention, he said, signals that the public consciousness of soil health is rising.

For some consumers, he said, labeling food as "organic" doesn't answer all their questions: "How is the product made? What are the ingredients in it? Where did those ingredients come from? How were those ingredients grown? Who grew those ingredients? Were the people who grew those ingredients treated fairly?" 

In response, food companies are beginning to feature farmers and their growing methods on boxes of cereal and macaroni and cheese. 

And Lynch said that engaged foodies, as they're often called, are outspoken and passionate to the point that they're influencing mainstream consumers. 

But he also acknowledges that not everyone is embracing soil health. Farmers wonder if healthy soil will really help their bottom line. "Soil health practices work differently on every farm," too, he said. "There's not a silver bullet for every single solitary farm." 

As if that weren't complicated enough, a glance at the rest of the conference agenda — with sessions on international trade, food safety regulations, labels and certifications — shows just how many variables play into our food system.

General Mills is seen as a sustainability leader, investing in renewable energy and pollinator protection. The company has put $3 million into soil health in the last couple of years, yet that represents just 1 percent of the company's overall corporate giving.