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How Cereal Companies and Consumers Can Make Breakfast Better

Insights + Opinion
How Cereal Companies and Consumers Can Make Breakfast Better
Adrian V. Floyd / CC BY 2.0

By Karen Perry Stillerman

What's for breakfast? Maybe it's a bagel and cream cheese, or toast and coffee, or eggs (or not). For millions of Americans, though, cereal is a breakfast mainstay. There's a mind-boggling array of ready-to-eat cereal brands on offer, and everyone has their favorites.


But what really goes into your cereal of choice? What impact does that have on the planet? What can cereal-makers — and those of us who buy their products — do to lessen that impact? These are questions UCS asked in a new report, Champions of Breakfast: How Cereal-Makers Can Help Save Our Soil, Support Farmers, and Take a Bite out of Climate Change.

Breakfast cereal is mostly grain … and in many cases, a whole lot of sugar, but that's another topic. For this report, we looked at some of the top-selling cereal brands, the particular grains that go into them, the way most of those grains are grown now and the alternative ways these could be grown if farmers had different incentives. Lead author Marcia DeLonge summarizes our number-crunching (see what I did there?) and the top takeaways here.

But what does it all mean for conscientious consumers who also happen to love cereal?

  • Your favorite flakes aren't always so g-r-r-r-reat for farmers and the environment. Many popular breakfast cereals have corn as their main ingredient. Not just the eponymous cornflakes (both plain and top-selling Frosted Flakes), Corn Chex and Corn Pops, but also such brands as Froot Loops, Kix and Trix. While most of it doesn't end up in your cereal, U.S. farmers grow a lot of corn: in 2017, more than 89 million acres worth, an area larger than the state of New Mexico. Most of that corn is grown in environmentally damaging ways. Much of the nitrate in Iowa's drinking water is due to corn. Toxic algae in Lake Erie is largely due to corn. Coastal "dead zones" — especially the one in the Gulf of Mexico that is forecast to be the size of Massachusetts this summer — are largely due to corn. While it wasn't part of our analysis, a recent study revealed that corn is also a major source of air pollution. Today's dominant corn production system damages our soil, pollutes our water, releases heat-trapping gases and misses the opportunity to store carbon in the soil. And lately it isn't working out so well for farmers, either. In other words, there's a lot of room for improvement.
  • Those little O's could have big impact. But maybe you're like this guy, and Cheerios are your thing. Those O's, whether plain or honey-nutted, are mostly whole oats; other oat-based cereals include Honey Bunches of Oats and Lucky Charms. U.S. farmers used to grow a lot of oats, but they've been replaced by other crops (see "corn," above). Now, oats are seen as a key to diversifying Corn Belt landscapes. A long-running Iowa State University study has shown that rotating oats and other crops with corn and soybeans can dramatically reduce soil erosion and pollutant runoff while maintaining farmer profits.
  • What about wheat? Our analysis didn't include a scenario for wheat cereals like Wheaties, Raisin Bran, Cinnamon Toast Crunch or my personal favorite, the oddly-named Grape-Nuts (which contain neither grapes nor nuts, but rather wheat and barley). Like corn, wheat is grown across large swaths of the country, with similar effects on the soil. But there are soil-health building practices available to these farmers, too. For example, Montana farmers have found that crop rotations that include lentils — a legume requiring little moisture — have helped build soil health and increase farm resilience in that arid region, with added economic benefits.

Consumers have power in the cereal aisle … but big companies have more.

As UCS showed with this interactive feature earlier this year, we have choices when we go to the supermarket (though public policies and corporate actions largely create and prop up those choices). To improve the impact of your cereal habit, the best option right now is probably to choose an organic brand. Grains grown organically avoid a lot of environmental damage, and while farmers can pursue sustainable practices without being certified organic, the USDA organic label is currently the best signal to consumers that packaged food ingredients are grown in better ways.

Then there's oatmeal. I wrote about its power a couple of years ago, and our new report bears out that sustainably grown whole oats have even more soil-saving, pollution-preventing potential than formulated oat-based cereals, simply because there are more oats per serving. (Although personally, I won't return to my favorite organic oatmeal until this heat breaks in the fall.)

Beyond that, clearly sustainable cereal choices are pretty limited. The biggest cereal companies could take steps to change this, however. There are four of them, and you know their names: General Mills, Kellogg Company, Post Consumer Brands and Quaker Oats (a division of PepsiCo). Together, these companies account for 86 percent of the $8.5 billion U.S. breakfast cereal market; many of their brands are household names, and they make more than just cereal. These companies have begun to take steps to improve the sourcing of their ingredients (check out some of their initiatives here and here), but there's plenty of opportunity to do more. By investing in more supply chain improvements, defining and improving sustainability standards and raising consumer awareness, these companies can play a major role in expanding opportunities for sustainable U.S. grain farmers, setting the wheels in motion for larger-scale market shifts.

In the heart of corn country, the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) are ready to work with these companies. They've been coaching farmers to grow cover crops and incorporate oats and other crops into rotations. But PepsiCo's Quaker Oats, which has a large plant in Iowa, reportedly doesn't buy oats from there. And while General Mills also uses a lot of oats, is based in the Midwest and has committed to shifting a million acres of farmland to more regenerative practices by 2030, the company hasn't — so far —committed to buying oats from diversified farms close to home. And it's precisely this lack of market certainty that is holding Iowa farmers back, according to PFI.

It's clear the big cereal companies can do more. And with our new report in hand, my colleagues and I will be thinking about how organizations like UCS — and all of us as eaters — can help make that happen.

Karen Perry Stillerman is a senior communication strategist and senior analyst in the Food & Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

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An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

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Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.

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If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.

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