July 23, 2019

Your Favorite Cereals Could Help Farmers, Reduce Soil Erosion and Farm Runoff, and Take a Bite Out of Climate Change

Crop Rotations Could Save Over 70,000 Tons of Soil, Avert at Least $5.8 Million in Water Pollution Costs

WASHINGTON (July 23, 2019)—Leading cereal-makers can help curb water pollution, combat climate change, and keep farmers profitable by making modest shifts in their grain purchasing practices, according to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “Champions of Breakfast: How Cereal-Makers Can Help Save Our Soil, Support Farmers, And Take a Bite Out of Climate Change” shows how relatively small commitments by companies to source more sustainable ingredients could encourage farmers to build healthy soil.

“The dominant way of growing grains in the U.S. causes significant water pollution and contributes to the climate crisis,” said Marcia DeLonge, senior scientist in the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “If cereal-makers, which are major buyers of grains, insisted on purchasing these ingredients from farms that employed regenerative practices, we’d likely see more farmers adopting those practices.”  

Just four companies—General Mills, Kellogg Company, Post Holdings, and Quaker Foods (a division of Pepsi-Co)—control 86 percent of the $8.5 billion cereal market. For their breakfast cereals and other food product lines, these companies purchase large quantities of corn, wheat, rice and oats—grains grown across tens of millions of acres in the United States and elsewhere. Under the current system of policy incentives and purchasing contracts, grain farming is a significant driver of water pollution, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, and heat-trapping emissions.  

However, a large body of research shows that science-based farming practices can help solve many of these problems, making food production more sustainable. Cover crops, more diverse crop rotations, and prairie strips are just a few soil-covering practices that make soils “spongier,” or more able to absorb and hold carbon, water and nutrients.   

The UCS analysis focused on just the best-selling corn- and oat-based cereals and found that:

  • If a company purchased just the amount of corn used annually in Frosted Flakes from farms newly adopting cover crops and more diverse crop rotations, the company could transition up to 30,000 acres of cropland to a system that could prevent the loss of up to 12,150 metric tons of soil per year. The transition could also reduce nitrogen runoff by 44 metric tons, potentially saving nearly $830,000 in surface freshwater pollution costs. It could also reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent heat trapping gas stemming from fertilizer use, by nearly 4,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, which amounts to taking 840 cars off the road.
  • If a company purchased the amount of oats used annually in Honey Nut Cheerios from farms newly adopting cover crops and more diverse crop rotations, the company could transition up to 180,000 acres of cropland to a system that could prevent the loss of up to 72,900 metric tons of soil per year. The transition could also reduce nitrogen runoff by 262 metric tons, potentially saving $5 million in freshwater pollution costs. It could also cut nitrous oxide emissions by nearly 24,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, which amounts to taking 5,040 cars off the road.

In the last few decades federal policies and consolidation have incentivized farmers to grow only a handful of crops, including grains, in ways that maximize yields, but often at the expense of soil, water and air quality. For example, farmers commonly plant corn and wheat in continuous monoculture and leave fields bare and susceptible to erosion and degradation between growing seasons. Soil farmed in this way is less able to absorb and hold water and nutrients, which flow downstream and contaminate drinking water and damage fisheries.

"Despite growing evidence showing multiple benefits of more diverse cropping systems, relatively few farmers have implemented them, in part because there aren’t enough markets that value and compensate farmers for small grains,” said Natalie Hunt, teaching assistant professor at the University of Minnesota and an author of Iowa State crop rotation studies. “If leading companies committed to buying from farms that protect soil and water via crop diversification, however, farmers in Iowa and around the Midwest could more confidently adopt such systems."

The analysis recommends that cereal-makers and other major grain purchasers establish or expand strong commitments to promote healthy-soil farming practices. In addition to changing their own purchasing commitments, food companies should also advocate for state and federal legislation that further incentivize and enable more farmers to profitably adopt these regenerative practices. The report also highlights the unique role that consumers can play to encourage companies to shift their purchasing practices.

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with people across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.