Cargill Inc., the world's largest trader of crops and raw foods, is expanding its anti-deforestation goals and human rights commitment across three of its most troubled supply chains — soybeans, cocoa and palm oil.
With environmental changes a growing concern for many commodity companies, Cargill said last week it is enacting two new policies — one on sustainable soy in South America and the other on new human rights standards — and is updating its four-year-old forest policy.
"Farming and forests can — and must — coexist," Dave MacLennan, Cargill's chief executive, said in a statement. "The world depends on agriculture to feed a growing population but also depends on the long-term viability of our natural resources."
The Minnetonka-based agribusiness has major soybean operations in South America, where farming of the crop has encroached on important ecosystems, like the Amazon rain forest in Brazil. More than a decade ago, Cargill and its industry peers agreed to a purchase moratorium on soybeans grown on newly deforested land in the Amazon.
The company monitors the forest activity of its supply chain using geospatial tools and works to educate Brazilian farmers on its deforestation policy. Last week, the company said it plans to expand protections and supply-chain transparency to other native vegetations beyond forests, including South America's Cerrado, Gran Chaco and Llanos, using less-drastic measures than a moratorium.
"There is a time and place for a moratorium — which is why we signed onto the Amazon moratorium where we were addressing acute issues and laws that weren't supportive," Ruth Kimmelshue, senior vice president of Cargill's business operations and supply chain, said in an e-mail.
"However, our broader approach to ending deforestation, as outlined in this policy, favors engagement and working with suppliers and the industry to adopt appropriate policies and address grievances or conflicts in the supply chain," she added.
Demand for soybeans is growing, reflecting the world's increased appetite for meat, because the crop is often a base ingredient in livestock feed. As the middle class expands in several emerging economies, more people can afford — and want — to eat meat. This growing demand can encourage South American farmers to expand the boundaries of their cropland, leading to deforestation.
"Consumers' demand for safe, abundant, reliable and affordable food requires year on year growth of agricultural production," Kimmelshue wrote. That happens by increasing the yields on existing cropland and by expanding the land area dedicated to agriculture, she said, which threatens forests and other ecosystems critical for biodiversity.
Cargill, the largest privately held U.S. company by revenue, plays an outsized role in the world's food system, making it a focus of many environmental interest groups. One such group, Mighty Earth, has been particularly critical of Cargill's soybean suppliers in South America and its meat production supply chain in the United States.
Mighty Earth's chief executive, Glenn Hurowitz, said Cargill's "announcement has the potential to be the starting point that leads to a major breakthrough for more sustainable meat, cocoa and palm oil." But, he added, the company has to follow through on these commitments for them to have merit.
Cargill said it will provide a detailed action plan for how it plans to implement and measure these broad goals by June 15. The company aims to eliminate deforestation from all its supply chains by 2030, with several milestone goals for cocoa and palm oil targeted for 2020, Kimmelshue said.