General Mills recently commissioned a study into the regenerative agricultural practices of a farm supplying grass-fed beef for some of the company’s products.
The study was conducted by environmental sustainability consultants, Quantis, at White Oak Pastures, a 3,000-acre family farm in Bluffton, Georgia. The farm owner, Will Harris, began to shift the farm from conventional to regenerative practices about 25 years ago. They converted annual cropland to perennial pasture and introduced a range of animals including cattle, sheep, goats, hogs, poultry and rabbits.
“We were starting to realize that regenerative agriculture was a solution to a lot of sustainability issues like greenhouse gases, water and farmer livelihoods, so we really wanted to understand how big of a lever regenerative agriculture is for moving the dial on some of these areas that we care about,” says Steven Rosenzweig, soil scientist with General Mills. “White Oak Pastures offered a perfect opportunity to put some of these things to the test because Will Harris, the rancher, is the model of regenerative agriculture that a lot of people strive to attain. His operation offers a unique opportunity to study some of these things because he’s been slowly acquiring degraded annual-crop lands over the past several decades and putting them into his regenerative management system.”
The consultants were able to compare fields that Harris had just acquired to fields he had been managing for more than 20 years, and everything in-between.
“The fields under regenerative management for a different number of years offered a natural experiment to understand what kind of impact Will is having on the soil,” says Rosenzweig. “And it was a great opportunity to study a regenerative system within our supply chain because we source beef from White Oak Pastures for our Epic brand.”
Fewer greenhouse gas emissions
The study found that a kilogram of fresh beef produced using regenerative management practices ended up with a beneficial effect on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, emitting 3.5 less kgs of CO² than a kilogram of conventionally produced beef (which emitted 33 kgs of CO²)
The study confirmed what many holistic management practitioners have known for years; that regenerative grazing practices — such as allowing optimal rest and recovery for pastures through carefully planned, rotational grazing — have a lower footprint than conventional beef production, and captures soil carbon, reducing GHG emissions.
Regenerative grazing, says the report, is rooted in the “law of the second bite.” This refers to the conventional grazing practice of allowing animals to re-graze an area before plants have had time to recover from the first grazing pass. This practice leads to soil degeneration. Managed grazing gives the land time to rest, allowing plants to rebuild their root structure before being re-grazed. The interactions of soil microbes, plant roots and grazing animals result in net carbon sequestration in the soil.
The study used a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) method which evaluates the total environmental impact of a product over its entire production and/or consumption chain. The study considered only the carbon footprint of the beef production cycle up to the point of slaughter, but suggests there are several other positive stories to tell about White Oka Pasture’s regenerative agriculture system, including more efficient land and water use, reduced nutrient run-off and pesticide use and improved long-term productivity that the LCA didn’t consider.
6X more carbon efficient
The consultants found White Oak Pasture’s regenerative grazing system, taking into account all of the farm’s livestock products including beef, chicken and pork, to be six times more carbon efficient than average North American conventional livestock production systems.
“Not only that, Will was able to offset all of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with his beef production and processing operation, but he’s able to restore his land fairly quickly, as indicated by the rapid increases in soil carbon, aggregation, and microbial activity that we observed,” says Rosenzweig. “If other producers are striving for these rates of carbon sequestration, it’s going to be somewhat challenging just because not everyone is starting from such a degraded state as he is, which allows him to sequester enormous amounts of carbon because the soil is so depleted when he starts managing it.”
These findings have the potential to help beef producers overcome the stigma of high GHG emissions that have been associated with conventional beef production.
Compared to other U.S. studies, WOP’s system shows a 111 per cent lower carbon footprint than conventional beef and is also lower than other protein production systems for pork, chicken and soybeans. At the same time, because the highest emission sources, from cattle digestion and manure, are highly uncertain, the researchers feel that the results from the WOP study could be on the conservative side.
The highest potential sources of emissions in beef production are enteric related to digestibility and manure, and there is still uncertainty over the extent of emissions from these sources. Enteric emissions are affected by feed digestibility and age at slaughter. This is an area where there is potential to improve the system and reduce emissions. Relatively few studies have measured the actual direct emissions of GHG’s like methane.
“There is always variability and inherent uncertainty any time you’re doing any sort of scientific research like this,” says Rosenzweig. “Even the current models of enteric emissions are based on industry and scientifically accepted models, but we didn’t have a chamber on every single cow seeing how much methane they produce over a course of a day. So, in every single kind of measurement, we have a little bit of uncertainty, and so the total net total emissions could either be slightly higher or slightly lower, but it’s clear that the impact he’s having is pretty large.”
Oat pilot project
White Oak Pasture’s system effectively sequesters enough carbon to offset 85 per cent of the farm’s total emissions. To explain General Mills’ interest, White Oak Pasture’s 2017 emissions represent 0.01 per cent of General Mills’ 2017 corporate carbon footprint.
“For General Mills, the study is adding to our confidence in regenerative agriculture as a strategy that we should be leaning into to meet our sustainability goals,” says Rosenzweig. “We have a commitment to reduce our greenhouse gas footprint by 28 per cent by 2025. We have goals around improving key watersheds and improving farmer livelihoods. We did the study to see the level of impact that this kind of operation can have. We feel good in the results that we’ve seen, both for the environment and the rural community.”
In 2019, General Mills announced that it will advance regenerative agriculture practices on one million acres of farmland by 2030. This year it launched its Regenerative Oat Pilot in its oat-sourcing regions in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and North Dakota.
“There isn’t a blueprint for ways that a food company can engage with farmers and its supply chain in moving farmers down the regenerative path, but this is the strategy we are pilot testing,” says Rosenzweig.
The pilot project partnering with regenerative farmer and rancher, Gabe Brown of North Dakota and his company, Understanding Ag to work one-on-one with 45 farmers to develop and implement a customized, three-year regenerative management plan specific to each operation.”
“By collecting soil and insect samples, conducting breeding bird surveys, and analyzing farmer profitability changes over the next several years, we will be learning alongside the farmers about how transitioning to regenerative systems impact soil health, biodiversity, and farm profitability,” adds Rosenzweig.
General Mills has started with oats, but Rosenzweig says the company is working to expand the program to other sourcing regions in 2020.
Implications for farmers
Rosenzweig believes farmers and ranchers have to be a part of the climate conversation.
“Agriculture is the only sector that can cost-effectively pull carbon out of the atmosphere,” he says.
“Any farmer or rancher can sequester carbon. They have the potential to do that, so I think they have a huge opportunity to be the heroes in the climate fight just in the amount of carbon that they can pull out of the atmosphere and lock away in the soil.”