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General Mills tests paying farmers for ecosystem efforts

MOU signed with Ecosystem Services Market Consortium and Kansas Department of Health & Environment.

General Mills, the Kansas Department of Health & Environment (KDHE) and the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to pilot test ESMC's program that rewards farmers for generating environmental assets by improving soil health on their land.

This pilot project will test ESMC's protocols and processes to measure and reward the impacts of beneficial agricultural management in an ecosystem services market for agriculture. ESMC's impact-based program will, in turn, pay farmers for increasing carbon in the soil, reducing greenhouse gases (GHG) and improving water quantity and water use efficiency.

General Mills, KDHE and ESMC will work with farmers growing row crops in Kansas to improve sustainable agriculture outcomes. The pilot opportunity is being made available to producers participating in the General Mills regenerative agriculture program.

"This unprecedented pilot is a leading example of public and private sectors coming together to quantify environmental improvements and compensate farmers for implementing soil health and regenerative practices on their operations," said Mary Jane Melendez, chief sustainability and social impact officer at General Mills. "We must demonstrate not only meaningful and measurable environmental benefits to communities at large but economic benefit to farmers as well."

KDHE officials believe payments to farmers based on quantified and verified soil health and water quality impacts will accelerate progress toward achieving water quality goals. By working collaboratively, all three organizations hope to demonstrate how agricultural solutions can deliver results that reduce costs to taxpayers and public water authorities.

"The goal of the pilot program is to encourage farming practices that improve both soil health and water quality in the Cheney Reservoir region such that agriculture is the solution to a more resilient and clean water supply for Wichita [Kan.] residents," said Leo Henning, deputy secretary of the Division of Environment at the Kansas Department of Health & Environment. "We believe regenerative agriculture can improve the quality of this vital water source, and if we are successful, it's win-win-win, for farmers, communities and the environment."

General Mills has partnered with consultants from Understanding Ag, who will work with participating producers to identify and implement changes to their farming practices that will improve soil health and store more carbon in agricultural soils. Understanding Ag's farm advisors will also collect the information needed to quantify and verify the environmental assets generated from the practice changes.

ESMC will quantify the impacts, verify them independently and then generate certified credits based on actual impacts to ecosystem services attained. The certified impacts allow the benefits to be assigned to another organization's sustainability obligations. General Mills will utilize GHG improvements in its sustainability reporting, while KDHE will identify buyers who seek certified water quality benefits that participating farmers achieve.

"This project will result in real, quantified reductions of GHG emissions and nutrient loading to surface water while also providing key insights to attain efficiency and scale," ESMC executive director Debbie Reed said. "Thorough understanding of how cropland can provide ecosystem services is essential as we strive to offer our programming from coast to coast and ultimately reward producers for services provided across 250 million acres."

ESMC is launching several more pilots this winter and spring in the Midwest corn and soybean growing region, focusing on row crop and grain production systems. The consortium is building a national-scale ecosystem services market designed and conceived for the agriculture sector. It plans a 2022 full market launch of its Ecosystem Services Market. ESMC seeks to enroll 30% of available working lands in the top four crop regions and top four pasture regions to have an impact on 250 million acres by 2030.

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