Bees Help Grow Over 35 Percent of Our Food Crops. Meet the Woman Trying to Save Them.

By: Jane Black

Beth Robertson-Martin and General Mills are working to protect pollinators—and our food supply.

American Food Hero 2019: Beth Robertson-Martin

Title: Director of Commodities and Pollinator Council Lead, General Mills

What she's doing: Championing pollinators

One June day in 2014, Beth Robertson-Martin found herself standing on a dirt road dividing two California tomato fields. On one side sat a farm that was nothing more than a 300-acre carpet of dried-out dirt. "It looked like a scene from Mad Max," she remembers. "Everything was dead." On the other side was a 6-foot-tall hedgerow, a tangle of white-blossomed milkweed, sunflowers and elderberry bushes that General Mills had planted alongside the tomatoes to create a habitat for bees, butterflies and other pollinators.

"That was the moment I knew this was what I was meant to do for the rest of my life," says Robertson-Martin, who works with farmers and other suppliers to source organic, sustainable ingredients for GM's brands, including Cascadian Farm, Muir Glen and Lärabar. "It wasn't just the vast field of tomatoes and that the flowers were blooming and gorgeous. I could hear the difference—the birds, the bees."

It's more than a little ironic, because when Robertson-Martin was a kid, she was terrified of insects—bees in particular. But the startling decline of honeybees and wild pollinators like bumblebees was a top concern when she joined the company seven years ago. That year, U.S. beekeepers lost 45 percent of their hives. And the more she studied the problem, the clearer it became that helping pollinators—which are necessary to grow more than 35 percent of all food crops, and about a third of the ingredients for the products GM sells—would require a bold commitment. As Robertson-Martin explains, "A robust insect population is the clearest indicator of a healthy habitat. If you have bugs, it means you have a lot of biodiversity—which means you have great soil. And healthy soil helps to sequester carbon from the atmosphere, prevent erosion, increase water retention and nutrients for crops and offer a better environment for wildlife."

Beth Robertson-Martin in a field

Her passion, approachability and disarming honesty are key traits that have made her such a successful advocate. On her watch, General Mills has invested more than $6 million to create and restore pollinator habitats on 73,000 acres of its suppliers' farms. She also helped spearhead a partnership with the Xerces Society and the University of Minnesota Bee Lab to contribute a total of $4 million to help farmers plant another 100,000 acres of bee-friendly habitat across the country by 2021. These initiatives make the Minneapolis-based company the biggest contributor to pollinator health in the U.S.

Additionally, GM has committed to sustainably source 100 percent of its top 10 ingredients (including palm oil, corn, oats and cocoa) by 2020, through various practices from reducing greenhouse gas emissions on farms to water conservation. And this spring, the company announced a program to promote regenerative agriculture practices—environmentally minded methods of farming that help create healthy soil—on 1 million acres of land by 2030. The bees are buzzing with thanks.

3 cool facts about Robertson-Martin

  • As a child, Beth was terrified of insects—especially bees. The irony of her current unofficial title—"the Bug Lady"—is not lost on her.
  • Before GM, Beth worked in sourcing for Gap and later Lucky jeans, "Very different from what I do now!"
  • Her Food hero: "My grandma Elvira. She taught me the value of hard work, as well as how to can tomatoes and make my own ketchup. And her spritz cookies are to-die-for!"