Champions of Breakfast: How Cereal Companies Can Take a Bite Out of Climate Change

Published Sep 10, 2019

Analyst Karen Perry Stillerman discusses how cereal makers can help farmers improve soil health, prevent water pollution, and reduce the climate impact of our agricultural system.

In this episode
  • Colleen and Karen break down how cereal makers can help farmers fight climate change
  • Karen explains why changing the way we make cereals can add up to the equivalent of taking 12,000 cars off the road every year
  • Karen assess the environmental devastation of grains grown for our breakfast foods
  • Colleen wonders why Grape Nuts are called Grape Nuts
Timing and cues
  • Opener (0:00-0:34)
  • Intro (0:34-2:12)
  • Interview part 1 (2:12-12:39)
  • Break (12:39-13:54)
  • Interview part 2 (13:54-24:20)
  • Sidelining Science Throw (24:20-24:32)
  • Sidelining Science (24:32-27:44)
  • Outro (27:44-28:47)
Related content

Colleen: Karen, welcome to the podcast.

Karen: Thanks, Colleen. It's great to be here.

Colleen: Yeah, I'm really happy to finally get you behind the mic. So tell me, what did you have for breakfast today?

Karen: Well, today I had my usual, which is yogurt and fruit because it's the summer and fruit is really great.

Colleen: So are you a cereal eater?

Karen: I am sometimes. I like granola. I like oatmeal when the weather is a little bit more temperate than what we have right now. But I will admit, sometimes a box of cereal, a bowl of cereal is just exactly what you want.

Colleen: I had cereal this morning.

Karen: What did you have?

Colleen: I had grape nuts.

Karen: I love grape nuts.

Colleen: Why are they called grape nuts?

Karen: I don't know because there's neither grapes nor nuts. It's really wheat and barely.

Colleen: I know.

Karen: It's crunchy and compelling in a strange way.

Colleen: It's always scared me. They're like little pebbles. They're so hard. You have to wait a long time for...

Karen: Little nuggets.

Colleen: I know.

Karen: I think that's what I like about them, the crunch.

Colleen: I know but they could break your teeth, I think. So I interviewed your colleague, Marcia DeLonge last month, and we talked about climate change and agriculture, and specifically some of the practices that farmers could use that would protect soil and water and reduce pollution. And I encourage listeners to check out that episode, it was Episode 60: "Farmers and Crops on a Collision Course with Climate Change," for the detailed science behind these practices. But let's quickly go over the basics. Give us a little refresher course. Karen: Yeah, well, this cereal report was really an extension of that work and really building on that, but, you know, most of the nation's grain and particularly the corn is grown on huge swaths of the Midwest. It's grown mostly for animal feed and ethanol but also some for food. And it's grown in ways that really leaves soil vulnerable to erosion. And it sends excess fertilizer and pesticides into the waterways and it releases the heat trapping gas, nitrous oxide, it also doesn't do anything to store carbon in the soil. And the better ways that we see and that many farmers are starting to adopt actually do more to save soil and protect our water. And those are things like plowing fields less or not at all. Growing cover crops that keep the soil covered, you know, in the wintertime or in between cash crops, rotating a wider variety of crops. So it's not just corn, corn, corn or corn/soy all the time, but things like oats and other crops that can break up pest cycles and keep nutrients in the soil. And then planting deep rooted perennial crops that really dig down into the soil and do all the things those other practices do but also store more carbon deep down underground.

Colleen: So where do you plant the perennials, along the edges or in between?

Karen: Yeah, you can plant them. There's a study in Iowa that looked at what we call prairie strips. And so they plant things like sunflowers and deep rooted prairie grasses, native plants, in little strips between fields or around fields and even just 10% of the land with perennials makes a huge difference in terms of how much soil and fertilizer washes off those fields. But perennials are also trees or shrubs. So you can plant fruit trees or nut trees.

Colleen: Right. Good point. I always think of perennials in terms of my garden and what I might plant in my garden.

Karen: All kinds of things. Alfalfa is a perennial, and that's an important livestock feed so you could feed it to cows.

Colleen: The analysis looked at specific cereal companies and estimated the benefits of sourcing grain sustainably. So tell me about the analysis and how you designed it and implemented it.

Karen: Yeah, it's a cool little analysis. It has lots of steps and is kind of complicated, but I'll try to break it down. So the first thing we did is look at, well, what are the leading corn based and oat based cereals? Because those are the two grains we really wanted to look at. And so we looked at survey and sales data and determined that the leading corn cereal is Frosted Flakes, and the leading oat cereal is Honey Nut Cheerios, both of which have a lot of sugar, which is not good.

Colleen: You know...

Karen: But anyway.

Colleen: When I was a kid, I loved those cereals.

Karen: I know.

Colleen: But they are, they're really sugary.

Karen: They're super sugary. So we don't have formulas for those cereals, but we do know that they're mostly grain and then the part that's sugar. So the next part of the analysis was we looked at the ingredient and nutrition labels and assessed how much of the cereal is sugar because it tells you that and you can subtract that out and figure that basically the rest of it is the primary grain. So that told us how much grain is in a box of cereal. And from there, we could calculate how many acres of land it would take to grow the amount of grain in that box multiplied out by the sales for all of the boxes that are produced and eaten in this country in a year. So now we know how much acreage we're talking about.

then we use data from another Iowa State University study that showed the benefits of crop rotations and including more grains and growing specifically oats together with corn and soybeans. And so we developed some scenarios and basically they were what would happen if a company, any company, produced or purchased grain, whether it's corn or oats in the two scenarios, in amounts similar to what's used in those two cereals every year? But if the grain was grown in a more sustainable way, such as in that rotation. And then to compare the other scenario we looked at is what if a company bought oats in the same amount to make that many servings of just plain old oatmeal? And so then we could see what would happen environmentally.

Colleen: What will happen?

Karen: So the details are all on the report. But essentially, I mean, there are real benefits to be had if companies did purchase more sustainably grown grains. The benefits for Frosted Flakes with more sustainable corn are significant. There are even greater benefits for growing oats that way so such as in Honey Nut Cheerios, and much greater benefits for sustainably grown oatmeal. So let's look at the oatmeal, the annual benefits you'd get if a company purchased more sustainably grown oats for that amount of oatmeal eaten every year. We'd save a million dollars in water cleanup costs from erosion that didn't happen. We'd save $12 million in reduced damage from nitrogen fertilizer pollution in water that didn't happen. And climate benefits from avoided nitrous oxide emissions from the fertilizer that didn't need to be applied would be the equivalent of taking about 12,000 cars off the road every year.

And you know, those can seem big or small, depending on how you look at it, but basically, they're illustrations. You know, these are just a couple of cereals that we're talking about in oatmeal. There are a lot of cereals that, you know, you walk down the supermarket aisle, you see how many different cereals they are. Four big companies make almost all of them. Together those four companies, and you know their names, they're General Mills, and Post, and Kellogg's, and Quaker Oats. Together, they control 86% of a market that's about $8.5 billion annually. And those companies don't just make cereal. So Quaker Oats is owned by PepsiCo. And all of those companies have other divisions and make lots of other food and beverage products. So you can imagine, just from our little illustrative examples, it's a small thing, but it could leverage bigger things. And so if companies start seeking out more sustainably grown ingredients for cereals and all the other products they make, then we can make a real difference.

Colleen: Yeah, it feels less overwhelming than thinking about climate change in terms of the entire globe. So how do you go about getting these companies to change their practices? Are there real possibilities to get them to change?

Karen: I think there are. So we put out this report to start a conversation and so this is just a conversation that we're starting to have. But some of the cereal companies, and General Mills in particular, have made big commitments recently to purchase ingredients and find ways of converting more land to these kind of sustainable practices. And so we hope that what they see in this report are some ways to implement those commitments and we hope the other companies who haven't done it will start to see ways. And we'll be talking to them and we'll eventually be pushing them to do that. Because you know, in Iowa and across the Corn Belt, farmers need to change and a lot of them really know it.

So you see it in the news every day, farmers are struggling, crop prices are low, bankruptcies on farms are on the rise. You've got trade wars that are making everything worse. The soil is eroding at rates that are just totally unsustainable and really threaten the ability of farmers to pass down viable farms to their kids and their grandkids and to keep growing food into the future. We've got water pollution that is poisoning water supplies, right in Iowa in the states where all this farming is happening, but also damaging fisheries all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. And so farmers know this, and policymakers know this, the policies or the practices need to change, but farmers also have to have new markets.

So that's one of the obstacles, right, is some of the obstacles to switching practices are things like upfront costs, like, "Oh, I need a new harvester if I'm going to grow oats." Other things are, "I just don't really know how to grow oats and oats haven't been optimized for my area." And that's a thing that research and technical assistance can fix. But some of the things are, "I don't know where I'd sell oats." So we hear that and our friends in Iowa hear that from farmers all the time. "I'd love to do this. I don't know what...I would harvest the oats at the end of the season and then what would I do with them? There's no one here to buy them." And so that's, I think, what we're asking the companies to do. At the same time, we need better public policies that help underwrite some of the costs while the markets are getting rolling.


Colleen: So Karen say more about the rotation study. What was that?

Karen: It's really cool and it's ongoing. So this is a 17-year and counting experiment at Iowa State University and the researchers there are essentially comparing the norm in Iowa which is corn and soybeans to a longer rotation that includes things like oats or any other small grain, it could be barley or something else. Alfalfa, that deep rooted perennial that's used as cattle feed and cover crops. And so they have been experimenting on different plots of what happens when you grow just the two crops versus three or four. And the results are really kind of astonishing, like, those longer rotations show clear environmental benefits, much less soil erodes from the field, much less fertilizer is needed, which means less fertilizer runoff. Fewer herbicides are needed because the different crops break up pest cycles, so you don't get as much insect pressure or weed pressure. And all of this happens while maintaining the profits and the yields for farmers. So it's really cool.

Colleen: So when did they start the study?

Karen: That's a good question. What was 17 years ago?

Colleen: Oh, so it's...

Karen: Two thousand two.

Colleen: Oh, okay, so it's been 17 years?

Karen: Yeah, it continues.

Colleen: Very, very cool.

Karen: And that's, you know, so the latest paper. They've put out a series of scientific papers documenting these results, and the latest one was published earlier this year, and that's the one that we used to base our results in this cereal report on.

Colleen: So do farmers look at these studies?

Karen: They do. There's a group called practical farmers of Iowa, and they're really cool people. They've been advocating cover crops and these crop rotations for a long time and they're, you know, talking to the researchers at Iowa State all the time. And you know, they've got farmers who are trialing this on their own and who are ramping up production of oats, which, you know, oats used to be grown in places like Iowa, but they were grown mostly for horse feed back when horses were tractors. And then tractors came along and I think farmers thought there was a whole lot less need for oats. So they used to grow a lot of them and now grow very few, but you can still grow them there and you can grow them well in these rotations. The interesting thing about oats is that they're cool season crops so they grow, like, in the spring, so you can plant them really, really early. They like the cool weather. They grow, and you could harvest them before you plant your corn or soybeans, which are a hot season crop.

Colleen: So it's a win-win...

Karen: And you still have time for a winter cover crop if you do it right.

Colleen: So it's a win-win as long as they have something to do with those oats, there's someway to sell them?

Karen: Right, because they're making an investment in buying the seed and planting and harvesting. So they've got to be able to know they have a market, "Where am I gonna take it? Who's gonna buy it from me?"

Colleen: What do you think the biggest challenges are for changing the system? Are farmers in general in favor of it? Or are there farmers who really don't wanna change?

Karen: I mean, I think it's complicated. Farmers are just like the rest of us, right? Change is hard, and especially if you've been doing things in a particular way for decades, and you know how to do it that way, it's hard to imagine what we would do that might feel radically different. But I think, I heard an interesting anecdote the other day from a farmer saying, "When they implemented this kind of longer rotation it made farming feel exciting and challenging again." You know, it sort of sparked their mind, they had to really think about it and, you know, doing something different can be fun too.

Colleen: Right, so change is hard but engaging in a lot of ways...

Karen: But farmers, you know, they wanna take good care of the land and they wanna pass something valuable along to the next generation. And if they see their soil washing away, and they see, you know, the water pollution that results, that doesn't make anybody feel good. So I think it's helping them make the change they wanna make by making sure that the public policies are in place and the markets are there.

Colleen: So what are some of the policy avenues?

Karen: So, you know, there are things, there are programs in the farm bill that actually help underwrite the costs of switching practices, so can actually give farmers financial assistance to buy that new harvester or to buy cover crop seed or to plant prairie strips around their farm, those kinds of things. Some of it is research and technical assistance and actually having extension agents out in the field to help farmers figure this out and figure out how they would do this on their piece of land because every piece of land is different. And then again, some of it is just linking up the buyers and sellers, making sure there's someone who can buy and take delivery of those oats at the end of the season.

Colleen: What size farms are we talking about?

Karen: We're talking about farms of all sizes really. I mean, they can be really small or mid size or even large. It's really the practices that are in place on each acre that matters.

Colleen: Are there things that individuals can do to sort of help push this forward?

Karen: Yeah, I mean, that's one of the conclusions of our report is that all of us as eaters have a role, right? So we're all standing there in the supermarket aisle thinking about what to buy, what to eat for breakfast, and so you can make choices. I mean, right now, the best, I think we could do is buy an organic brand of cereal because there you at least know that a lot of these kinds of practices are what's, you know, going into that grain. But then, you know, we're also consumers who can give companies feedback. So yeah, we can ask companies questions. I'd love to have people sending this report to General Mills or Kellogg's and saying, "Okay, so what are you doing? Tell us about your purchasing strategies and what you are doing and can do and then we'll talk about how you could do better." And then we're all also citizens and voters, right? So there's the part about encouraging Congress and the USDA to do more, encouraging state governments to do more to support farmers who are practicing this kind of agriculture and producing food for all of us that's more environmentally sustainable.

Colleen: So how did we end up with a system where we're just growing corn and soybeans?

Karen: So it's been a progression over the last 40, 50 years of specialization. And I think, you know, it comes out of a mindset of treating a farm like a factory, and doing one thing because you can do one thing faster and better and grow more of it. But what that overlooks is all of the other impacts and it overlooks the fact that, you know, a farm isn't a factory, a farm is actually an ecosystem and you know, you take a hike in the forest, you don't just see one kind of tree, you don't just see one kind of plant in a meadow. There, you need lots of different plants and animals and insects and all of those things. So it's the result of short-sighted policies that we put in place and we can put different policies in place.

Colleen: So I've been on a tear about single use plastic lately and I have been writing to different companies, it's really quite easy.

Karen: Do you get responses?

Colleen: Sometimes I get quick responses that are very well formulated, so you know that they've heard that question before. You know, so the follow up questions are a little bit harder to get good answers to, but it's surprisingly easy to do and you feel good that you're asking, "Why are you using this plastic packaging on your eggs instead of the cartons?" And you get back interesting responses. One response I got was that it's actually from a carbon point of view. You use less carbon making recyclable… making plastic egg containers with recycled plastic than using the, you know, molded cardboard ones. It's like okay, well that's interesting, it's not helping my sea turtles, you know. So there are different scenarios what you're trying to accomplish but...

Karen: Well, companies need to hear from their customers, right? So General Mills doesn't know that you're interested in where the oats in your Cheerios came from and how they were grown unless you tell them, right?

Colleen: Right and...

Karen: So...

Colleen: And with the internet and Google it's just really easy to do it these days. You don't have to...

Karen: Absolutely.

Colleen: ...find an address and write a letter with a pen and paper you can just do it in five seconds.

Karen: You could tweet at them. You could tweet the link to our report at the cereal companies.

Colleen: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Karen: Say, "Hey, did you see this? What are you doing?"

Colleen: Exactly. So you're essentially telling them I don't need to make a stand by giving up my fruit loops. I can just write to the company and...

Karen: Well, we won't even talk about the sugar in the fruit loops Colleen, but you might wanna dial back.

Colleen: What's your least favorite cereal?

Karen: My least favorite cereal? I don't know. I never understood Lucky Charms.

Colleen: I was just going to say that. What is that?

Karen: What is the deal with marshmallow for breakfast? That's weird. But I will say that in college, I ate an unconscionable amount of Apple Jacks. Because there they were in the cafeteria and sometimes the food was really bad. But I don't advise that really.

Colleen: No, I don't eat... I haven't eaten these types of cereals since I was a kid. I mean, I ate the sugary cereals when I was a kid. But one that I did like was Corn Pops. Those were good.

Karen: Those were good.

Colleen: Yeah. Well, I do wanna make clear that we are not endorsing any cereals here. These are all personal opinions.

Karen: We're really not, but again, like, oatmeal. Oatmeal is where it's at. Or you buy that same box of oatmeal and you make granola out of it.

Colleen: Interesting.

Karen: Yeah.

Colleen: I've never made granola.

Karen: It's easy. I'll show you how sometime.

Colleen: Excellent. Well, Karen, thanks for joining me on the podcast it was great talking to you.

Karen: It was really fun.

Related resources