WASHINGTON, Dec. 9, 2015 -- Demographic changes in the marketplace and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns make it imperative that farmers -- and the dealers who supply them -- embrace a sustainable approach to farming, a former General Mills executive told an audience of several hundred at the Agricultural Retailers Association annual conference last week in Palm Desert, California.

“These millennials and consumer groups want to know two things: where is their food coming from and how it’s grown from the beginning,” said Steve Peterson, who retired from GM in August after serving as its director of Sourcing and Sustainability. He is chairman through the end of the year of Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture, and runs Peterson Farms, a grain and livestock operation in Paynesville, Minnesota.

“Where you guys sit, I call it a fulcrum – right between the consumer and the producer. We need you to help make (sustainability) work.”

Loosely defined, sustainability encompasses a range of practices designed to increase yields while also reducing use of water, pesticides, fertilizers and greenhouse gases. Depending on the products being grown, it also can mean reducing deforestation and avoiding the use of child labor.

Peterson urged the retailers to work with their farmer customers to implement precision agriculture, using field sensors and satellite imagery to guide planting, fertilizing and watering decisions.

Only about 20 percent of the potential of precision ag is “is really fully utilized,” he said, telling retailers that with commodity markets not expected to move that much in the next five years, their growth opportunities lie in services as much as in products.

“You need to think and we need to think about the entire supply chain,” Peterson said.

The impetus for General Mills’ push towards sustainability came not from inside the company, but from activists with the Rainforest Action Network (RAN).

Peterson recalled a January day in 2010 when RAN protesters “stormed the (General Mills) campus” in Minneapolis and unfurled a huge banner protesting the food giant’s use of palm oil harvested from plantations where rainforest used to stand.

To get GM’s attention, RAN used Cheerios, which contains a tiny amount of palm oil -- “a fraction of 1 percent,” Peterson said. But the strategy worked. (Palm oil is used as a coating for vitamins “to keep them basically intact,” Peterson said in a brief interview after the talk.)

“The point was not the (amount),” he said. “They were using (General Mills’) most iconic brand” to force change in the company’s sourcing methods. It wasn’t too long before the company’s leadership came to him and said, “’We’d like you to lead this thing called sourcing sustainability,’ and I said, ‘What’s that?’”

After moving past an “indignant and defensive” stage, General Mills negotiated with RAN for months, resulting in GM adopting a goal of sourcing all of its palm oil sustainably by 2015. The company is on track to meet that goal, Peterson said, but it will not know for certain until it conducts a year-end review.

“It was no fun those first few months fighting with RAN,” Peterson said. “But it actually worked pretty well. That same sort of approach to sustainability needs to come to the farm level.”

“I believe sustainability equals profitability. It’s not some General Mills guy telling you how to farm. You’ve got to think about this as an opportunity.”

General Mills has committed to obtaining 100 percent of its top food ingredients from sustainable sources by at least 2020. They include cocoa, vanilla, sugarcane, oats, U.S. wheat, U.S. sugar beets, and U.S. corn (dry milled).

The debate is not just about sustainable agriculture, but about the “freedom to farm,” he said. If farmers and retailers don’t change the way they do business, “you’re going to lose your freedoms.”

Peterson’s talk raised the hackles of at least one listener, who said, “RAN got you to cave in a few minutes,” and mentioned other large food chains that have announced sustainability goals, despite what he said was a lack of supporting science.

“We’re looking for a little backbone,” the audience member said.

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“I hope what I’ve explained is not regulation, it’s an opportunity,” Peterson responded. “How are we going to work with those goofy activists? It is based on real live engagement. You have to make a choice as ag retailers. If you want to argue that this is not a good idea and this is going to go away, that’s your choice; in my opinion, that is not best for you and your producers.”

Peterson said General Mills has a neutral position on GMOs. On its website, the company says it knows that consumers have many questions about the technology, while noting there is “broad global consensus among food and safety regulatory bodies that approved GM ingredients are safe.”

GM supports the technology but also “organic farming as an alternative,” he said. At the start of 2014, GM said it would no longer use any ingredients made with GMOs in Cheerios.

General Mills “will provide the consumer what they want,” Peterson said. “Cheerios, more specifically, is oftentimes the first food a little baby will eat. It doesn’t mean (General Mills is)  not supportive of (GMO technology). I helped educate our leadership from the CEO on down on the importance of GM technology in feeding the world.”


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