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The newest food trend is in the ground

Food companies’ sustainability goals hinge on soil health

by Melody M. Bomgardner
May 25, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 21


The photo shows Betsy Bower and an Indiana corn farmer examining a stalk of corn.
Credit: Ceres Solutions
Betsy Bower of Ceres Solutions advises a corn farmer in Indiana.

Farmers in the US Midwest, faced with a wet spring, saw their to-do lists lengthen and their time to get everything done shorten. The first week of May should have been the height of planting season. But at that point in Indiana, just a tiny fraction of farm fields had been planted.

With the compressed calendar, farmers are being selective about how they use their time. “We’re just getting started, and we’re behind the gun on getting crop nutrition down,” says Betsy Bower, an agronomist at the farm-goods retailer Ceres Solutions.

Although they are busy, the Indiana corn farmers that Bower works with make time for her to visit their farms and talk about the health of their soils. Bower helps by performing soil tests, so growers can avoid spending time and money applying unneeded nutrients. In fact, she says some farmers can skip spreading phosphorus and potassium this year.

There’s a lot more that Bower can do, and increasingly, farmers are asking her to do it. For example, she helps them select strategies that will improve their return on investment and enhance stewardship of their land. That could mean applying nitrogen in new ways, reducing tillage, planting cover crops, or trying something new, such as a microbial soil enhancement product.

This is the third season that Bower and a group of her clients are making those choices as part of a sustainable agriculture program run by Land O’Lakes. Well known as a brand of butter, the company is also one of the largest farmers’ cooperatives in the US. The Land O’Lakes program is called Sustain.

Food companies such as the sweetener maker Tate & Lyle are also taking advantage of the Sustain program to measure and reduce agriculture’s portion of their environmental impact, including greenhouse gas emissions and water use.

Company-linked agriculture sustainability programs have been sprouting up over the past few years, mainly in the US but also in Europe and China. Food brands such as Campbell, Kellogg, General Mills, and Mars Wrigley have sustainability targets and are using the initiatives to meet them.

It’s a new role for the food industry. In 2014, the most recent year with available data, companies spent over $5 billion on R&D for food manufacturing and new products but nothing on R&D relating to the environment and natural resources, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

The new sustainability tools are intended to help the agriculture community dig deep and learn about the off-farm effects of growing food. For now, though, the programs are voluntary and focused on education and data gathering. It is not yet clear what food companies will do with the farmers’ information or whether the programs will have a real impact on the sustainability of farming.

Farmers participating in these programs start by recording baseline data such as the amount of fertilizer and type of tillage used on specific fields. By inputting information as the growing season progresses, they can compare their practices and results with those of other farmers in the region.

Off-farm impact

Food brands want to reduce agriculture’s hefty greenhouse gas emissions and freshwater use.



Share of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in 2017


Overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions from crop cultivation 1990–2017

Source: US Environmental Protection Agency.



Share of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture


Rice production’s share of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions


Amount of applied fertilizer taken up by crops


Freshwater withdrawals used by agriculture

Sources: World Resources Institute, UN Food and Agriculture Organization
Note: Data are for 2010 except freshwater figure, which is from 2017.

“What the tools do is allow us to get a score on each field. We can target what a plan of attack could be to improve that score,” Bower says. It takes some effort, she adds. “Farmers are in the midst of a whole management system; if they change one thing, it changes everything else.”

A survey conducted by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an advocacy group, found that only a minority of farmers have heard of these new sustainability programs. But their popularity is rising. The nonprofit Field to Market developed the first commonly used tool for on-farm sustainability a little over 5 years ago. It now has 80 projects for 11 commodity crops and is enrolling over 800,000 hectares (ha) of farmland per year.

Although farmers want to be good stewards of their land, they are signing up mainly in hopes of reducing ever-rising costs. Other incentives include cost-sharing programs to help them try out cover crops, install drip irrigation, or transition to organic production. In the long run, the practices hold the promise of making farms more resilient to variable crop prices and extreme weather events.

“Early on we adopted the philosophical approach that these programs have to benefit the farmer,” says Dan Sonke, director of sustainable agriculture at Campbell Soup. “If we’re going to ask a farmer to share data with us, there has to be value in the data for them, or why would they do it? If we can take collective data and put their data in context, it might reveal things they haven’t seen before.”

Several of the programs grew out of analysis and tools first developed by environmental organizations such as the EDF, Field to Market, and the Nature Conservancy. The nonprofits have years of experience helping brand-name companies improve the sustainability of their operations. For food companies, that means looking at crop production, says Sara Kroopf, supply chain manager at the EDF’s corporate partnering group, EDF+Business.

Kroopf emphasizes that the programs do not purport to trace sustainably grown corn or soybeans all the way through the supply chain to a grain mill, food processor, or livestock producer. “We really want to shift the average production to the better, without having to put a bar code on every single kernel of corn,” she says.

At General Mills, chief sustainability officer Jerry Lynch is working with organizations that have direct relationships with oat and wheat farmers in the northern Great Plains to help the company meet its goal of reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions 28% by 2025. Almost half of the company’s carbon footprint, and 99% of its water footprint, comes from agriculture, Lynch says.

Carbon dioxide emissions attributed to agriculture come from the energy used to produce crop inputs—mainly nitrogen fertilizers but also pesticides—and from tractors. Another source of emissions is the volatilization of applied nitrogen, which releases nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas.

But General Mills can’t just tell farmers to cut their use of crop inputs, fuel, and water. Instead, the company is advising them to learn regenerative agriculture to achieve those ends by improving the health of their soils.

Healthy soils trap water and nutrients and make both available to plants throughout wet and dry periods. “Regenerative agriculture is one of the fundamental levers that makes so many improvements simultaneously to the overall system,” Lynch says.

General Mills started tracking sustainability metrics in row crops in 2013 with help from Field to Market. More recently, it engaged the nonprofit Kiss the Ground to get farmers signed up for coaching from fellow farmers working with the Soil Health Academy. In addition to environmental benefits, the Cheerios maker hopes the education will stop or reverse the shrinkage of land planted with oats.

Word of the General Mills program reached Nathan Neameyer of Mylo, North Dakota. Like most farmers in the region, Neameyer grows mainly wheat, and like farmers nationwide, his income has been squeezed by the rising costs for fertilizers and other inputs. He’d been attending meetings and seminars about regenerative agriculture when he heard about the General Mills program from a neighbor.

This image shows a field of soybeans planted in the residue of a no-till crop of corn.
Credit: US Soybean Export Council
This field of soybeans was planted on top of the residue left from a no-till corn harvest. No-till and low-till practices help build soil carbon and prevent soil erosion from wind and rain.
This photo shows a cover crop of annual rye grass and crimson clover.
Credit: Ceres Solutions
Cover crops, like this mix of annual rye grass and crimson clover, add nutrients and organic matter to soils. They can be used to smother weeds and foster growth of beneficial soil microbes.
This photo shows black irrigation tubing in a row of young tomato plants.
Credit: Shutterstock
Drip irrigation, shown here in a field of tomato plants, helps conserve water and reduce nutrient runoff compared with gravity-fed and sprinkler irrigation systems.

“The general philosophy is to work with Mother Nature rather than against her. Hopefully it will transition the farm to use less chemicals,” Neameyer says. He learned that soil health principles are universal—they help all crops. But different crops have different needs. And the reverse is also true: different crops benefit or deplete the soil in different ways.

“Oats are really good for propagating mycorrhizae fungi, much better than wheat,” Neameyer says. “If I can substitute some oats for wheat in my fields, I can help the fungi grow. That improves soil aggregation and frees up nutrients that are maybe now chemically bonded to minerals and not available. Changes can happen every year as fungi make the nutrients usable in the ground versus having to buy them.”

Market basket

Agriculture sustainability programs a liated with food companies attract a diverse group of farmers.
Sources: Companies.

Neameyer received his soil health training from Gabe Brown, a farmer and rancher based in Bismarck, North Dakota. Brown grows row crops and native pasture on 2,000 ha that he purchased from his wife’s parents.

“I wasn’t born and raised on a farm, so I had no preconceived notions of what I should and should not do,” Brown explains. The first soil-building practice he adopted, in 1994, was to stop tilling the land. By leaving crop residues in place after harvest, farmers can slow soil erosion from wind and rain. Brown learned about additional soil health practices like cover cropping. It wasn’t long before other farmers were asking him what they should do.

The principles of soil health that Brown promotes imagine a future of agriculture that looks different from what’s commonly practiced today. He advocates for farmers to avoid what he calls mechanical and chemical disturbance of the soil. He notes that organic producers avoid using chemicals to kill weeds but often degrade soil quality with tilling, whereas no- or low-till conventional growers may use a lot of herbicides. He’d like to see the best of these practices merge.

Ensuring that water and nutrients stay in the soil is a major goal at Campbell. The company has direct relationships with the family farms in central California that provide tomatoes for its iconic soups. In 2012, Campbell set goals to reduce water use and nitrogen emissions in tomato production by 20% by the end of 2020.

This illustration shows a graph depicting how a particular farm's sustainability metrics compare to other farms in the region.
Credit: Field to Market
Field to Market’s Fieldprint tool shows farmers how their sustainability efforts compare with other farms in their state and nationally.

Sonke says Campbell now has 7 years of data showing reduced use of nitrogen and a big uptick in the deployment of water-conserving drip irrigation. It hasn’t been a totally smooth ride, though.

“Two years ago we saw a bump up in nitrogen, which we don’t like to see,” Sonke says. “But that was explained by unusual weather at the start of the season. The tomato crop went in late, and growers used more fertilizer to catch up.” Last year, he says, rates moved downward again.

Providing growers with data from other farms can help them find and address sources of waste, Sonke says. For example, data from one tomato farm showed higher water use than on similar farms nearby. Having detailed information helped the farmer isolate the problem to a drip irrigation installation on a specific field.

Excess irrigation or too much rain can exacerbate the loss of nitrogen and other nutrients from farm fields. The runoff contributes to dead zones in streams and larger bodies of water like the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. Some states are now restricting the use of fertilizers to prevent runoff.

Bower, of Ceres, works with her farmers to reduce fertilizer loss, an effort that depends on a specific farm’s soil type. She often recommends nitrogen-stabilizing chemical additives to prevent volatilization. Farmers can also look to field imaging to help them apply fertilizer in precise doses where it is needed.

Nitrogen and phosphorus will stay put even in soggy soils if they are supplied by microbes living on plant roots. Farmers can enhance this activity by growing cover crops to feed the soil’s native fauna.

To increase the population of nutrient-fixing microbes, farmers are starting to apply specialty microbes from firms such as Azotic Technologies, Novozymes, and Pivot Bio. The companies say farm trials show microbes’ just-in-time delivery of nitrogen—in the form of ammonia—boosts corn yields and can decrease the requirement for synthetic nitrogen.

Keira Havens, sustainability manager at Pivot Bio, says microbes are a good fit for regenerative agriculture programs. The microbes already in the soil make an indeterminate amount of nitrogen available to the plant, Havens says. Growers have to make up for any shortage by applying additional fertilizers. “I see our product as a tool that brings together these two worlds because our microbes live directly on the root of the plant.”

The scientists at Joyn Bio, a joint venture of Bayer and the microbe-engineering firm Ginkgo Bioworks, are working to boost the nutrient-fixing ability of microbes with an eye to reducing the amount of synthetic nitrogen that corn farmers need. “With an engineering approach we can target a substantial 40–50% reduction,” Joyn CEO Mike Miille says.

The enhanced microbes are just starting to reach farms. This year, Bower says, some farmers in her Land O’Lakes program are trying out a microbial product that helps break down crop residues left over from no-till operations to provide a better surface for planting. The microbes digest the biomass and turn it into nutrients that plants can take up.

“The sky’s the limit. We’re always looking for ways to grow better,” Bower says.


Not all soil microbes are beloved by promoters of sustainable agriculture, however. Rice growers typically flood their fields during the growing season. That creates a perfect environment for the growth of anaerobic microbes that belch methane—a potent greenhouse gas—into the atmosphere.

That’s a sustainability problem for Kellogg, the maker of Rice Krispies cereal. Because the company doesn’t buy directly from farmers, it is working with organizations including Field to Market, the Cool Farm Alliance, and the International Rice Research Institute to encourage sustainable rice-growing practices.

Kellogg chief sustainability officer Amy Senter tells C&EN that the best ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions vary depending on each region’s current farming practices. In Egypt, she says, “many farmers rely on rapid flood irrigation rather than more efficient irrigation methods.” The company and its partners implemented a training program to introduce practices that reduce methane emissions. They also brought in a new rice variety with better productivity and a shorter growing cycle.

Another Kellogg program, in Italy and Spain, is research focused, Senter says. Local farmers get help using the Cool Farm tool to model their greenhouse gas emissions. They are conducting trials with new growing techniques that reduce emissions by returning rice straw to the fields and shortening the amount of time fields spend underwater.

As sustainable agriculture initiatives spread, the amount of data collected will become massive. Field to Market’s newest Fieldprint tool will track irrigation efficiency and soil erosion, for example.

And Campbell is working with a data start-up to bring in additional data sets. “We can map out an outline of each tomato field and from that access weather history and soil type,” Sonke says. The hope is that more information can help with farm- or field-specific recommendations to improve the quality of tomatoes—and the price Campbell will pay for them.

Tools that can take in all the available data and return specific farm-management recommendations are not here yet, cautions Rod Snyder, president of Field to Market. “The data have to have value. That’s the only way this will ultimately be useful to producers.”

Farmers who try sustainable agriculture programs may find it takes 3 to 5 years to see notable and consistent improvement in factors like water use or input costs, experts tell C&EN. Oat and wheat farmers, General Mills’ Lynch says, will notice better performance particularly during periods of difficult weather.

Neameyer is pleased that General Mills is helping farmers assess soil health strategies. He stresses that the programs are valuable not because farmers are doing something wrong but because “we want to go from good to better. Everyone is very confident we’re doing the right thing for the soil.”


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