How Simple Mills Is Supporting Regenerative Agriculture

The company is focused on understanding ingredients that are inherently better for the soil and communities.

Sweet Thins

Sweet Thins

When frozen potato giant McCain committed themselves to regenerative agriculture, I noted that these signs of positive progress should be tempered with a note of caution: Just like buzz words like “net-zero,” definitions of regenerative agriculture vary widely. So as the term gets mainstream acceptance, we’re going to need to apply scrutiny to what each specific claim or commitment really means. 

That’s why I was interested to receive a press release from the folks at Simple Mills, in which they promoted the concept of regenerative agriculture as being central to the launch of their new cookie product, called Seed and Nut Flour Sweet Thins. Here’s the relevant portion of their original press release: 

Did you know that the use of alternative flours – like the watermelon seed flour used in Simple Mills’ new product, Sweet Thins – is supporting regenerative agriculture and that the way crops are grown can actually help heal the planet? We’ll have in-house sourcing and R&D managers on-hand to dive into these topics, and how these practices are beneficial to not only our health, but also to the health of the planet.

Given my aforementioned note of caution, I was curious to learn more. So I joined a conference call with company founder and CEO Katlin Smith, as well as senior R&D manager Ashley Streich and senior manager Emily Lafferty. Here’s the broad gist of what I learned about Simple Mills approach to, and philosophy on, regenerative agriculture: 

  • Diversity of foods is good for human health and our microbiomes, and diversity of plants is good for soil health and agricultural resilience
  • Rather than start with a specific product and defined ingredients, and then reverse engineer more sustainable ways of growing them, Simple Mills is focused on identifying and understanding ingredients that are inherently better for the soil and communities—and then developing products around those ingredients
  • Among the criteria used to evaluate ingredients are the ecological function a plant plays, how much carbon it sequesters, and how its use impacts farmers and their communities
  • The company then works with farmers to incorporate regenerative practices like cover cropping, nutrient recycling, etc. to ensure that the ecological potential of that crop is actually realized

Unlike certified organic agriculture—a specific set of rules and regulations that farmers have to follow—regenerative agriculture, which can also be practiced alongside certified organic, is more about guiding principles that can be adapted and applied differently depending on the specific context. 

That was evident in how Simple Mills talked about two ingredients in their new Sweet Thins—watermelon seed flour, and coconut sugar. In the case of the watermelon seed flour, the company contracts and works closely with a farmer in Ontario to incorporate wooly watermelons (primarily a seed crop) into their crop rotations, and then to apply sustainable growing practices like multi-species cover crop plantings and conservation tillage to their cultivation. The key here is a focus on increased crop diversity—meaning also both diversity of income, and increased pest, disease, and climate resilience—for a relatively conventional farm.

Meanwhile, the coconut sugar, which is produced from the sap of the coconut tree, is sourced from Java, Indonesia. The focus here is on agroforestry, perennial cropping, and composting—practices that help improve soil health, protect biodiversity and sequester significant amounts of carbon. 

Here’s how Smith describes the approach: 

“Not only does the food we eat have the potential to positively impact our bodies, but it plays a huge role in our planet’s health. When we grow food in environmentally sustainable ways, we can be a driving force in addressing climate change. I see Simple Mills being a change agent in the food industry, and we’re excited about the role Sweet Thins plays in our larger mission….”

It’s an impressive approach. And it’s one that points to both the promise and the complexity of mainstreaming regenerative agriculture. 

On the one hand, regenerative principles are significantly more adaptive and flexible—allowing farmers and purchasers to adapt and develop projects based on the unique needs of a specific community, crop, and/or eco-system. That has the potential to empower much more comprehensive and genuinely ecological solutions than a simple check box of rules and regulations around which chemicals and practices are or are not allowed. On the other hand, this very complexity again means that definitions will vary, and it will be hard if not impossible for the average consumer to verify each specific claim of each product or brand. 

Yet as I’ve argued often here on Treehugger, we are not going to simply shop our way to sustainability. So we probably shouldn’t expect brands like Simple Mills to hold all the answers to exactly how we reform our broken agricultural system. By investing in powerful concepts like regenerative agriculture, and by collaborating closely with farmers, they are developing models for what a future food system can and probably should look like. 

I asked the team about this on our call. Given the fact that the world’s over-reliance on monocultures and a few staple crops (rice, wheat, soy, corn) can be largely attributed to agricultural subsidies and policies, I wondered if they were engaged on a political level to make their diversified approach more like the norm. Their answer was decidedly honest: 

Not yet, they tell me—because politics and policy are complicated. But that’s definitely something on their radar for the future. 

Given their impressive efforts at the grass/coconut/watermelon roots level, I expect that a push on advocacy from companies like Simple Mills—and others investing in regenerative agriculture—could have a significant impact on changing how we think about farming. 

Here’s hoping that actually happens. In the meantime, should you be looking for something sweet and yet not too indulgent, you could do a whole lot worse than picking up some Sweet Thins. Available in Honey Cinnamon, Mint Chocolate, and Chocolate Browney flavors, I will likely be checking them out soon. 

We all have to do our part for regenerative agriculture after all…