This post is a part of a series on Ask a Scientist
I’ve been a cereal killer all my life. I eat it nearly every day for breakfast, and I often eat it at night, too, for a snack. Little did I know that cereal has a significant impact on the environment. Two of my colleagues in the UCS Food & Environment Program, Senior Scientist Marcia DeLonge and Senior Analyst Karen Perry Stillerman, published a report this summer that opened my eyes.
When I was a kid, Kellogg’s slogan was “The best to you each morning.” Back then, I ate some of the company’s cereals that are still top-sellers, including Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops. Are they really the best to you each morning? Putting aside the questionable nutritional value of those particular brands, according to DeLonge and Stillerman, the grains that make up the primary ingredients of most US cereals all too often are grown in ways that degrade soil, pollute water, and contribute to climate change. So they certainly aren’t necessarily the best for the environment each morning.
Fortunately, major cereal makers are slowly beginning to pay attention to the problems caused by unsustainable farming practices, but the operative word is “slowly.” They have made commitments to promote more environmentally friendly methods for growing grains, but those commitments need to be strengthened and expanded.
Given that nearly 90 percent of Americans eat breakfast cereal on occasion, that likely includes UCS members and their families, too, so I asked Dr. DeLonge to provide some more background on this neglected topic. Before joining UCS, she had a postdoctoral position at the University of California, Berkeley, after obtaining a Ph.D. in environmental science at the University of Virginia.
EN: You point out in your report, Champions of Breakfast, that the amount of grain used for breakfast cereals is relatively small compared to how much grain is produced by US farmers. Why did you decide to focus on breakfast cereal?
MD: Breakfast cereal may represent just a small percentage of the grain grown in the United States, but it is one of the main ways that many of us have a connection to these crops. Nearly a third of Americans who eat breakfast prefer cold cereal. Even so, we figured most people eat cereal without thinking about how it got to their kitchen table. We wanted to explain how the way cereal grains are grown can make a significant difference.
EN: Your report provides three scenarios showing how the four major cereal makers could make a major difference by requiring their suppliers to adopt more sustainable farming practices. What are the key things farmers can do to protect their soil, reduce their pesticide use, and cut back nitrogen pollution, which threatens drinking water supplies and has produced toxic algae and dead zones in the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico?
MD: In general, keeping soil covered between growing seasons and roots in the ground can prevent soil erosion and help ensure that crops use nutrients from fertilizers before they run off and pollute waterways. Some of the best practices include planting off-season cover crops and deep-rooted perennials. Rotating crops—which is when farmers grow different crops on different sections of their farms from year to year—is also beneficial, in part because it prevents pest problems and can reduce pesticide use.
EN: What is the incentive for cereal makers to require these practices? What is the incentive for farmers to adopt these practices?
MD: Some of the big cereal makers are starting to make commitments to improve their sustainability standards. Buying grain from farmers who are using some of these best practices could help them meet their water-conservation, water-quality, and climate-related goals.
The incentive for farmers? Adopting the kinds of practices I mentioned can reduce their reliance on fertilizers and pesticides, which helps cut costs and boost profits. Those best practices also can reduce water pollution and help protect local drinking water supplies, while protecting one of their farm’s most valuable resources—soil—for future generations.
EN: General Mills has made a commitment to promote more sustainable “regenerative” farming practices, including crop rotation, by 2030. That’s good news, but why does the company say it will take more than 10 years to get there?
MD: This is an exciting step in the right direction, but it is just a beginning. Scaling up better agricultural and food system practices requires overcoming a number of obstacles. For one thing, more farmers would have to be consistently producing crops in these ways—and at the required qualities—for companies to be able to commit to purchasing significant quantities of grain from them. More research, training, infrastructure, and improved policies will be needed to facilitate these changes, especially since climate change is fundamentally altering the playing field every year.
EN: What can cereal eaters do about this problem?
MD: Cereal eaters can learn about the impact of their food choices, and then take action to make their purchases drive positive change. For example, they could contact the manufacturers of their favorite cereal brands and ask them what they’re doing to protect the environment, they could buy products from companies that support sustainable farmers, and they could advocate for government policies that help companies and farmers protect soil and water. Doing any of these things could have a major ripple effect.
EN: The environmental drawbacks of grain production are a just a microcosm of problems that plague US agricultural production across the board. Is the US Department of Agriculture or Congress doing anything to address these industry-wide issues? What should they do?
MD: Recently there’s been a wave of interest in policies and programs that protect and regenerate soils. For example, there were some promising new provisions in the farm bill that Congress passed last December, and there has been a lot of activity related to “healthy soils” policies at both the state and federal level in recent years. There is a lot that the USDA and Congress can do to build on this momentum. More public investment is particularly needed in research, training, and financial incentives that can help farmers adopt and continuously improve sustainable practices.
EN: The top four cereal makers—General Mills, Kellogg, Post and PepsiCo’s Quaker Oats—account for 86 percent of the $8.5 billion US breakfast cereal market. Do any of them sell brands that are made from sustainably grown grains?
MD: These companies sell numerous brands, and some are starting to strengthen their sustainability standards. One of the most exciting examples is this year’s special limited edition of a General Mills Cascadian Farms organic cereal made with Kernza®, a perennial grain developed by The Land Institute. There haven’t been many boxes available so far, but more are expected soon.
EN: Most of the top selling cereal brands—Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and General Mills’ Lucky Charms, for example—aren’t exactly what I would call health food. Are there any healthy, sustainable cereals you could recommend?
MD: Our report focused on agricultural production, but one thing cereal eaters should keep in mind is that whole grains are the best choice when it comes to nutrition. This means that for health-conscious cereal lovers, old-fashioned oatmeal grown sustainably is one of the best bets.
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