Photo: Matt Liebman/Iowa State University

A Spoonful of Science in Your Surprisingly Powerful Cereal Bowl

, senior scientist | July 24, 2019, 5:32 pm EDT
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When you think about “farm to table”, what comes to mind? Heirloom tomatoes? Local mixed greens? Farmstead cheese? Whatever it may be, I hope you’ll add breakfast cereal to that list. Yes, breakfast cereal. 

Why? Although a morning bowl of flakes, puffs, or other tasty choices might not strike you as a “farm to table” item, the corn, wheat, oats, rice, or other grains that made your meal possible all started out on farms. Not only that, but they came from exactly the types of farms that stretch across millions of acres of the US and around the world. These farms have received a lot of attention for the role they play in challenges such as soil erosionwater pollution, and climate change. But they’ve also been identified as among the most powerful levers we have to solve these problems, and others.

In a report released this week, we shine a spotlight on the potential of the farms behind your breakfast grains. And we crunch some numbers to give you a taste for how your modest morning meals—and the companies that bring them to your table—present both challenges and opportunities for change for farmers across the nation.

Can a helping of breakfast grains help deliver big (enough) change?

Before going any further, I’d like to offer a caveat, or two. First, breakfast cereals are only a relatively small user of the tens of millions of acres of grains planted across the US. Relatedly, it’s going to take a lot more than more sustainable breakfast bowls to leverage the full power of farmers. All true.

That said, for millions of us, breakfast is a daily dose of grain. Those grains connect us to farms (hundreds of thousands of acres of them, we estimate). And companies that purchase these grains buy even more of these crops for other products. So, while breakfast cereals themselves may not be the biggest agent for change in US agriculture as a whole, we thought they were a compelling one.

But just how much change are we talking about?

How cereal companies and farmers could save thousands of tons of soil, millions of dollars, and more

To get a grasp on how far cereal could take us towards a more regenerative agriculture, cleaner water, and climate resilience, we looked to science. More specifically, we looked to science from a place that’s covered in grains (though currently mostly not ones used for human food), and where long-term research has illustrated an opportunity for substantial change: Iowa.

As we’ve reported previously, Iowa State University boasts a rigorous 17-year (and counting) study investigating the impacts of shifting standard corn-soybean fields to more diverse systems (adding in oats and cover crops, or oats and alfalfa). The results have been encouraging, showing that these diverse rotations can dramatically reduce soil erosion while still maintaining farmer profits. Furthermore, the most recent update published just this year demonstrates the potential for significant reductions in fertilizer pollution, while also keeping weeds at bay with less herbicide. Yet, Iowa remains blanketed in corn and soybeans (used mostly for feed and industrial purposes), largely because a combination of public policies and grain markets incentivize those crops, and farmers don’t have certainty that they could sell other crops (such as food-grade oats).

This all begs the question: what if cereal companies committed to purchasing modest but meaningful amounts of ingredients from farmers transitioning to more diverse rotations? For example, say, an amount of corn roughly equivalent to what is used annually just in a top-selling corn-based cereal (Frosted Flakes), or an amount of oats roughly equivalent to that used annually in a top-selling oat-based cereal (Honey Nut Cheerios)? How much progress could this make toward a more sustainable farming system?

To get the full answer, you’ll have to read our report. But here’s the short story: even sourcing changes at these relatively small scales could make a big difference. For example, purchasing the amount of oats we estimate is needed to make a year’s worth of Honey Nut Cheerios (produced in the sustainable ways recommended by the Iowa State University researchers) could impact 180,000 acres, save over 70,000 metric tons of soil (avoiding over $400,000 in water cleanup costs), reduce nitrogen runoff by 262 metric tons (saving over $5 million in surface freshwater pollution costs), and prevent over 20,000 metric tons of CO2-equivalents due to nitrogen fertilizer emission (amounting to taking 5,040 cars off the road).

As you can imagine, given that breakfast cereal is just one entry point into the potential to improve tens of millions of acres of US grains, and that the science of soil health is rapidly growing, this could be just the beginning.

Winning at breakfast

So, if you’re one of the millions of breakfast-lovers who kick off their day with a serving of grains, take note! The farmers and companies who work hard to fill your bowls each morning have science-based tools at their disposal that can be deployed not only to improve your breakfast, but also to protect clean water, build resilience to extreme weather and climate change, and more. The growing collection of healthy soils policies emerging in several states across the country is one key step toward making this happen. And engaged eaters, with the help of elected representatives and other stakeholders, could put companies in a better position to do much more, much faster. That would make you, dear reader, a champion of breakfast.

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