Visitors in the 1900 era village see oats come out of a thresher at the Iowa Living History Farms, Urbandale, IA, on Aug. 5, 2017. This year’s annual Grain Harvest Festival features a steam tractor that drives a belt powered antique threshing machine. The 1910 75-horsepower Case “Montana Special” steam tractor, owned by Nick Foster, is known as a breaker, because it was used to initially breakup the Montana prairie soil. The special purpose 3-foot wide rear wheels were needed for when the Montana soil became soft. Operating the tractor are Clara Bergman and Connor Wilson who have been learning about antique farm steam engines and tractor operation from Foster. Today, the thresher is being used to separates oat seeds from the harvested plant. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung.

General Mills has outlined a new company approach to curbing pesticide residues in the grain used to produce its cereal and other products.

The announcement comes just two months after a second study from the Environmental Working Group found traces of the controversial pesticide glyphosate in several of the cereal company’s breakfast cereals marketed to children, including several varieties of Cheerios.

“We are committed to protecting and regenerating the land from which our ingredients are grown,” General Mills said in a statement. “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.”

General Mills’ strategy includes four points for reducing pesticide use, including regenerative agriculture practices, a system known as integrated pest management, expanding organic crop usage and promoting the health of bees and other pollinator insects.

The company said its move to use these agriculture practices on one million acres of farmland over the next decade will impact more than 20 percent of its North American farm sources.

The strategy was applauded by As You Sow, an organization committed to promoting environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy and legal strategies.

In 2018 the organization helped shareholders draft a resolution asking the company to reduce pesticide use.

As You Sow said that because of the announcement by General Mills, it has retracted a second resolution meant to hold the food company accountable for pesticide residue in its food.

“The food industry has long avoided responsibility for the use of toxic pesticides in its supply chains,” said Christy Spees, environmental health program manager of As You Sow. “What General Mills is doing is a welcome step in paving the way to transparency, accountability, and long-term value for the company.”

General Mills, in its announcement of the initiative, also defended pesticide use, stating “plant pests and diseases are responsible for losses of 20 to 40 percent of all food production.”

It acknowledged consumer fears of pesticide residues showing up in food, even at levels below federal regulations.

“A lot of this work is not new,” said Mike Siemienas, spokesperson for General Mills, in an emailed statement. “What is new is several areas of measurement, results and reporting.”

Regenerative agriculture

The aim of converting a million acres to regenerative agriculture practices means encouraging farmers to disturb soil less, diversify crops, keep soil covered year-round and integrate livestock back into their operations.

General Mills said it is partnering with Understanding Ag, a farm consulting organization that teaches regenerative agricultural and ecological principles.

The program will include workshops and technical support for farmers, as well as long-term analysis of farmers’ operations and economic performance as they transition into more regenerative practices.

“To realize the full potential of these practices on a large scale, we encourage all farmers – organic and conventional – to consider adopting regenerative agriculture practices,” said General Mills in a statement.

Many of the practices core to regenerative agriculture are also ways farmers can lower greenhouse gas emissions in their operations, according to the United Nations’ August 8 report on Climate change and land use.

General Mills said it hopes to utilize 250,000 acres of organic grain by the end of 2019. That’s up from just 120,000 acres in 2015, but still only five percent of its U.S. source acreage. The company said in its statement that it’s currently the second largest natural and organic food producer in the U.S.

From 2015 to 2018, the company said it has avoided nearly 1.8 million pounds of pesticide through its adoption of more organic acres.

In 2016, more than 287 million pounds of glyphosate alone, the most common pesticide, were sprayed on cropland, according to an analysis of pesticide data by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Additionally, General Mills is promoting a technique known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which uses pests’ biological enemies, targeted use of irrigation, and other non-chemical means of pest control to stop bugs and weeds from hurting crop production.

The company is also promoting habitats for natural pollinators, funding field biologists at the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. The NRCS staffers will help farmers plant more than 100,000 acres of habitat for pollinators by 2021.

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