You heard right – a box of corn flakes can be sustainable, too

Andrea Chu

You’ve seen the labels in the grocery store: “heritage breed, old world grain, fair trade coffee” and the non-descript “100-percent all natural.”

Now comes the classic Kellogg’s box of Corn Flakes with its simple tagline of “The Original & Best,” long tucked away in the middle of the cereal aisle. As it happens, these regular, mass-produced corn flakes without a sustainability label can be just as green as all those other exclusive foods – and for a simple reason.

If we rethink our definition of sustainable food, we can make it more inclusive for consumers and farmers – and help feed a growing population without depleting our natural resources. Let me explain.

Taking sustainability from niche to norm

The current food movement emphasizes transparency and reconnecting with producers, growers and how food is made. As a result, it has also become obsessed with certifications, labels and differentiation, some of which may not even account for positive change.

Today, sustainable food is a niche market and the price premium that is often attached makes it inaccessible to many, if not most, Americans and certainly to people in poor nations.

With our global population expected to reach 9.9 billion by 2050, the negative environmental effects of agriculture will escalate under business as usual. As we’ve seen most recently with the toxic algae crisis in Florida, sustainable food production has to move from niche to norm.

We need to be able to scale quickly and make sustainable food more inclusive – not just for consumers, but all along the supply chain.

That’s why we must bring conventional farmers into the conversation.

Kellogg’s: Let’s reconnect farmers, consumers

In July, 2016, we launched a collaboration to tackle the issue with Kellogg’s and Land O’Lakes, which recently acquired a large agriculture retail cooperative. Our goal: deliver real results and achieve genuine behavior changes.

With consumers increasingly demanding to know where their food is coming from and how it’s produced, Kellogg’s sees this joint effort and the Land O’Lakes SUSTAIN platform, which my organization helped develop, as way to reconnect farmers and consumers through on-farm sustainability improvements.

It will help the cereal giant share the stories of farmers who are using SUSTAIN to reduce their environmental impact, for example, by reducing harmful fertilizer runoff and soil erosion. Their stories will also show how these farmers are working to give consumers the high-quality, sustainable products they crave.

A new food movement

The collaboration will initially focus on Nebraska, where Kellogg’s sources grain for products such as its trademarked Corn Flakes and Raisin Bran cereal. Besides helping to reduce the impact of producing these well-known products, it demonstrates that everyone can and should be a part of the sustainable food movement. 

With more than $13 billion in sales in 2015 and a slew of iconic brands and characters  – think Keebler Elf and Tony the Tiger – Kellogg’s could make a significant stride in putting more sustainable food on grocery store shelves.

The company is not alone. The recently announced Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, of which Kellogg’s is a member, and other household names such as Campbell’s Soup, Smithfield Foods and Unilever are working to do the same.

To shift our entire food system to one that doesn’t pollute waterways, won’t release more greenhouse gases, and gives more value back to our farmers – while producing enough food to sustain the world – we can’t afford to alienate farmers and to leave out large portions of our population.

It’s why we need to think beyond the label and rethink sustainability.