AN URGENT NEED
Climate change is arguably the most pressing issue of the 21st century. In particular, climate change will dramatically shift our global food equation. On the supply side, we can expect volatile and harsh weather conditions to threaten access to raw materials and disrupt supply chain deliveries. Today, global agriculture alone “produces up to 35% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (and uses 70% of the water)” —and it’s about to get worse. The demand for “agricultural products is estimated to increase by about 50% by 2030 as the global population increases”  and an “estimated 1.8B people are expected to join the global consuming class by 2025” . Going forward, it is likely that food manufacturers will face increasing pressures from all sides—governments, regulatory bodies, and consumers—to produce more food in a more sustainable way.
CALL TO ACTION
In order to provide reliable, affordable access to high-quality ingredients over the next several decades, the food industry must evolve. Specifically, food manufacturers must transform their supply chains to be both sustainable and resilient. General Mills has set an industry-leading example of this.
General Mills has committed to an ambitious goal of reducing 28% of its total greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 across its entire value chain, “from farm to fork to landfill” . The company’s long-term aspiration is to reduce total emissions up to 72% by 2050—in line with global scientific consensus, as mandated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change . This aspiration is particularly ambitious because General Mills intends to reduce emissions across the entire supply chain, beyond its own direct operations. In fact, “nearly two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions and 99% of water use occur outside General Mills’ operations, primarily in agriculture” —beyond the company’s direct control and line of sight.
To achieve this, General Mills has committed to sourcing its top ten priority ingredients from sustainable, traceable sources by 2020. “These ingredients represent 50% of the company’s total raw material purchases and have significant impact on its total environmental footprint” . Additionally, the company has conducted a global water risk assessment of its factories and pledged to “develop a global freshwater stewardship program with public commitments, public education and advocacy, and funding for key watersheds” .
Given that the majority of General Mills’ greenhouse gas emissions occurs upstream of its direct operations, the company must partner closely with suppliers and growers to implement sustainable farming and sourcing practices. Such practices include:
- Expanding industry partnerships with organizations, such as Field to Market and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, that provide farmers with tools, resources, and best practices . These industry coalitions also help growers “gather information about how their farming practices are impacting the environment” and “give them access to data that can help guide everyday decisions” related to soil and water management .
- Focusing on supplier engagement across the value chain. General Mills rarely handles production agriculture directly, and thus needs to obtain supplier buy-in and align incentives across the value chain. To do this, General Mills has invested “more than $100 million in energy efficiency and clean energy” .
- Sourcing from an additional 250,000 organic acres by 2025. “Organic farming’s focus on healthy soils can help sequester carbon, enable farms to have a higher tolerance to drought and heavy rains and promote biodiversity so the farm can continue to be more successful in adapting to changing climate conditions” .
I would make some additional recommendations to help General Mills achieve its ambitions. First, the company should establish a governance committee that sets policy targets and makes key investment decisions, with additional members embedded in the relevant business functions (e.g. procurement and supply chain management). Second, the company should develop and monitor robust performance metrics, and establish a mechanism for adjusting targets as climate science continues to evolve over the next 40 years. Third, downstream improvements can be made in packaging design and materials, which represent “14% of total greenhouse gas emissions across the value chain” . General Mills should move towards low-impact, zero-waste packaging through packaging innovation, partnerships with more progressive suppliers, and truckload packing-efficiency optimization. Finally, General Mills should invest to close data and technology gaps at the farm level. Currently, there is a lack of granular data available at the farm level: most data measurement and analysis tools used in the field today are simplistic and lack the capabilities required to account for key differences in growing regions, farming methods, etc.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
In the interim, how should industry leaders like General Mills balance short-term financial performance versus long-term investments necessary for survival? What role should shareholders and consumers play? More broadly, should companies be held to the same standards as nations when it comes to compliance on climate change?
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 Tim Wheeler and Joachim von Braun, “Climate Change Impacts on Global Food Security,” Science no. 341 (August 2, 2013): 508-513, http://science.sciencemag.org/content/341/6145/508.full, accessed November 2017.
 Anne-Titia Bove and Steven Swartz, “Starting at the source: Sustainability in supply chains,” McKinsey, November 2010, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability-and-resource-productivity/our-insights/starting-at-the-source-sustainability-in-supply-chains, accessed November 2011.
 Andrew Winston, “How General Mills and Kellogg Are Tackling Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Fortune, June 1, 2016, https://hbr.org/2016/06/how-general-mills-and-kellogg-are-tackling-greenhouse-gas-emissions, accessed November 2017.
 “General Mills announces new commitment on climate change,” press release, August 30, 2015, on General Mills website, https://www.generalmills.com/en/News/NewsReleases/Library/2015/August/Climate-Commitment, accessed November 2007.
 Jerry Lynch, “Supply Chain of the Future: An Inside View of General Mills’ Commitment to Sustainable Sourcing,” CSR Wire, April 8, 2014, http://www.csrwire.com/blog/posts/1294-supply-chain-of-the-future-an-inside-view-of-general-mills-commitment-to-sustainable-sourcing, accessed November 2017.
 John Kell, “General Mills has big plans to go green,” Fortune, August 31, 2015, http://fortune.com/2015/08/31/general-mills-going-green/, accessed November 2017.
 John Church, “Inside the General Mills roadmap to a sustainable food future,” The Guardian, October 23, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2015/oct/23/general-mills-sustainable-supply-chain-un-climate-conference-paris, accessed November 2017.