Kellogg's new 'compost chef' on soil and business success

kellogg soil science anna becvar
Kellogg soil scientist and "compost chef" Anna Becvar.

When news surfaced that Kellogg's had enlisted the help of what it called a "compost chef," Corn Flakes fans could be forgiven for any initial concern as to what they might start seeing in their cereal bowl in the morning.

Fortunately, as a renowned soil scientist, Anna Becvar won't be providing the cereals giant with new recipes for Coco Pops, but rather advising U.K. farmers who supply Kellogg's on how best to manage their soils, with the aim of ensuring the long term health and sustainability of their crops.

According to Kellogg's, the move is part of the Manchester-based firm's wider 2050 target to reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent from its 2015 baseline, as well as cutting the emissions from its suppliers by 50 percent over the same time frame.

By using compost produced from recycled food and garden waste that otherwise would end up in landfill, the company said it can help reduce methane emissions. Kellogg's farmers are therefore being encouraged to source their compost and biofertilizer from local suppliers of material produced at composting or anaerobic digestion facilities. Farmers then should "condition" the compost on the farm before spreading it on fields where cereal crops are grown, according to Kellogg's.

As well as improving soil health and crop resilience, the company said, this also reduces reliance on chemical fertilizers derived from fossil fuels, cutting the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere.

As a consultant with agricultural and horticultural experts Earthcare Technical, Becvar's role as compost chef is to advise farmers in Kellogg's Origins Programme, looking at how best they can manage their land while using these organic composts and biofertilizers to boost soil nutrients.

"I think it is quite groundbreaking of Kellogg's to set up a scheme like this with their farmers," Becvar told BusinessGreen. "I'm a soil scientist basically, but that is a bit less catchy than compost chef. All the stuff I do is around soil science and ground management."

With various academic qualifications and a farming background that has seen her work in land-based industries for more than 20 years, it is easy to see why Kellogg's approached Becvar for advice, and she believes more food and drinks companies soon will start to look more carefully at the soil management of their suppliers, too.

"I think other companies will follow Kellogg's, which is slightly ahead of the game here," she said. "I've done work for various companies via WRAP through the DC-Agri [digestate and compost in agriculture] group project, but I think we will see a new trend, with companies looking very much more at soils. Typically it is government schemes looking at farming, but this is from a different angle, so it is quite novel."

More companies are realizing that there is not just an environmental benefit to improving soils, Becvar said, but a strong business case "because you are looking at long-term productivity of soils, which has been missing from the equation, really, for a number of years." After all, Environment Secretary Liz Truss recently valued Britain's soils, forests and rivers at $2.31 trillion.

"But now people are looking at infiltrating cover crops using organic materials, to build soils back up into good, working soil," Becvar said. "So that's the business case for improving soil productivity — optimizing yield and trying to improve crop quality."

And in addition, of course, there is the sustainability benefit of recycling and closed loop systems, alongside future resource resilience as well as guarding against flooding.

"Good soil structure and organic matter levels allow better water-holding capacity and retention, so the whole soil-water-earth balance is pivotal with soils," she explained. "The better functioning and structured soils are, the better the whole system works."

The problem is getting the message across to farmers that, as with many things, the direct, bottom-line boost from improving the organic matter of their soil and crop yield is only really visible further into the future. At the moment, therefore, it is about "building the story."

"You have to buy into the longer term concept, because it is difficult to show a benefit immediately with organic materials," she explained. "You're looking at the longer term — five years — when you start seeing improvement. It is not an instant fix; it is a long-term concept."

Yet while the huge environmental and business importance of improving our knowledge of soils is beginning to gain recognition, there is concern over a dearth of expertise in this field in the U.K. The number of academic institutions that offer qualifications in soil science is steadily declining while fewer young people are choosing to study the subject.

Becvar therefore hopes her role as Kellogg's compost chef will help promote soil science as a subject and perhaps boost the number of opportunities within the wider food and drinks sector.

"I do a lot of work with the British Society for Soil Science and we're trying to encourage more young people into the industry, looking more specifically at soils as a discipline, alongside agronomy advice and increasing the knowledge base in that area," explained Becvar. "Soil science is such a huge discipline as it crosses over into planning, building and any form of land management, all of which is a growth area at the moment.

"That growth is fantastic, but we do need to capitalize on the ‘Year of Soils' in 2015 and keep the ball rolling. So if being the compost chef helps promote soils, then I'm quite happy."

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