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Sustainability in Grain Milling

There are many and widely varying descriptions of sustainability. As far back as 1987 the United Nations defined sustainability simply as “meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”

That task is steadily becoming more important. The United Nations projects world population will reach 7 billion early in 2012, up from 6.9 billion in 2009, and will exceed 9 billion people by 2050. Most of that increase will be in developing countries whose population is projected to rise from 5.6 billion in 2009 to 7.9 billion in 2050.

Grain milling is one of the oldest industries in the US. Even George Washington was a miller. Throughout that time millers have taken very seriously their responsibility to produce safe, wholesome and affordable milled grain products. More recently, millers have endorsed sustainability as a hallmark of responsible business stewardship of all our available resources.  In fact, the milling industry made great progress in this area well before the concept was developed.


Progress in Production Agriculture

As a mature and highly efficient industry, the milling industry is well accustomed to the methods and metrics of measuring progress. For sustainability, we refer to the metrics developed through the Field to Market program of the Keystone Center. Keystone’s Resource Indicators Report evaluated more than 20 years of data for land, water and energy use, soil loss and climate impact. It shows that production agriculture, the source of the raw materials used by milling, has become much more resource-efficient.  Report highlights include:

  • Soil loss has decreased 30-70 percent
  • The energy required to produce one bushel of wheat has decreased by nine percent, water use has remained flat and carbon emissions have decreased 15 percent
  • Corn production now requires 37 percent less energy and the amount of water required for irrigated corn has decreased 27 percent. This occurred during a period in which corn yields increased 29 percent.


NAMA Sustainability Principles

1. Biotechnology

NAMA supports science that contributes to food safety, health and wellness. We believe biotechnology is one such scientific tool that can increase production efficiency; advance sustainability through reduced use of water and agricultural nutrients; and increase production to help meet growing domestic and world food demand.
Wheat yield trend lines are flat and recent wheat stocks are at the lowest levels in half a century. In 2011, 94 percent of the US soybean crop, 90 percent of the cotton crop and 88 percent of the US corn crop benefited from biotechnology, and each has experienced significant growth in yields. The percentage of US wheat developed with biotechnology in 2011 was zero.  NAMA believes steps must be taken now to clear the way for the commercialization of biotech wheat as soon as feasibly possible.

2. Reform of the Conservation Reserve Program

About 29 million acres are currently enrolled in the CRP, making it the fourth largest “crop” in the US. Most of the CRP acres are located in the traditional grain producing areas of the Plains states. Further, many of those acres are highly productive and could be responsibly farmed without sacrificing environmental goals. NAMA believes the CRP should be targeted at land that is truly environmentally sensitive, with emphasis on buffer strips along waterways.

Failure to reform the CRP and allow non-sensitive land back into production forces grain production onto land that is arid, subject to erosion, and less sustainable. It also results in less food for a growing world population.

3. Reduced Usage of Chemical Fumigants

Mills are food manufacturing facilities and therefore sanitation is a top priority.  Consumers demand, and the FDA requires, cleanliness in our mills. Historically, chemical fumigants were the tool most often called upon for the job and in recent decades that tool was methyl bromide. The milling industry has cut its use of methyl bromide by about 95 percent, and will complete its phase-out on Dec. 31, 2014. Millers are working hard to identify and deploy cost-effective alternatives as quickly as possible so as to marry the twin goals of reducing pesticide usage with maintaining the highest level of sanitation in mills.

4. Supply Chain Efficiencies

The milling industry was a pioneer in developing and adopting more efficient strategies for transporting raw grain and milled grain products. Historically, mills were sited near the grain production and the milled products were packed into first, barrels, and then bags. Much hand labor was required. Cities like Buffalo, Minneapolis and Kansas City were centers of milling.

Now, newer mills are sited in or near the population centers. Los Angeles is the new “Milling Capital.” Wheat is shipped in unit trains of 100 or more cars of only wheat from the production areas to the population centers where it is milled and the flour is distributed short distances to bakeries in bulk trucks. While smaller bakeries, tortillerias, sandwich shops and other smaller flour users still buy bagged flour, far more flour is shipped by bulk tanker trucks that are loaded and unloaded pneumatically with air, with no packaging materials that must be disposed of or recycled. This has been a major improvement in manufacturing and transportation efficiency. We expect this trend to continue, as millers seek additional efficiencies in the supply chain transportation system.

5.  Processing Efficiencies

The milling industry has also proven itself to be extraordinarily efficient in processing.  Essentially all of the raw material received by a mill is turned into edible, saleable product consumed by humans or animals.  Therefore there is no waste stream that needs to be transported and disposed of.

Power input per unit of product has steadily declined as more efficient motors and lighting fixtures were installed; labor input per unit has plummeted with the introduction of more reliable equipment and electronic controls.  In this traditionally low-margin industry, sustainability is necessary for survival.

Last updated September 2013

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