Last week, thousands of pages of documents landed on the doorstep of an office in an affluent Minneapolis suburb containing details that accuse the country’s largest privately held company of continuing to drive planet-warming deforestation across the globe.
The delivery of the documents, assembled by the group Stand.earth, coincides with the publication of full-page letters, printed in the New York Times and Minneapolis Star-Tribune, that call on the owners of Cargill, the largest agribusiness corporation in the world, to pressure the company into keeping its promises to stop cutting down tropical forests.
“The greatest driver of deforestation is agriculture,” said Mathew Jacobson, a campaign director with the group. “Agriculture drives deforestation, Cargill drives agriculture. So if we’re going to address deforestation, we have to deal with Cargill.”
And Stand.earth’s latest tactic for dealing with Cargill is to publicly call out its elusive owners, members of the Cargill-MacMillan family — the fourth-richest family in the country with the most billionaires on Earth. Twenty members of the family own nearly 90 per cent of the company.
Cargill, with record revenues of more than $165 billion last year, is the biggest force in global agriculture and food, controlling massive amounts of the market in soy, palm oil, meat, cocoa and eggs, among a long list of commodities. Almost every American has consumed a Cargill product, whether they know it or not.
“They don’t have a public interface. Nobody buys from Cargill. You buy from McDonald’s, you buy from the supermarket, and you get a Cargill product,” Jacobson said “Most people don’t know who they are.”
Cargill responded to Inside Climate News and to the allegations in an email, calling the claims from Stand.earth “grossly mischaracterized.” The company said it takes “immediate action” if it finds any violations of its environmental policies by suppliers.
The company has long been in the cross-hairs of environmental groups, mostly for its role in cutting down swaths of climate-critical tropical forests in South America and Southeast Asia.
Activist group @standearth ‘names and shames’ @Cargill and its heirs to keep deforestation promises. #ClimateCrisis #Cargill #Deforestation
Responding to pressure campaigns over the last two decades, the company has also garnered high praise from these same environmental groups for its successes in reducing deforestation in two of its major sourcing areas.
Cargill was a founding member of the Amazon Soy Moratorium, which has significantly reduced deforestation in the world’s largest rainforest. It is also a member of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, which has been credited with radically lowering deforestation in southeast Asia.
But the company has since lapsed, its critics say, especially with its more recent pledges to eliminate deforestation in its supply chains and a commitment to end child labor in its production of cacao in Africa.
In 2014, Cargill said it would end deforestation across the entirety of its supply chains — including all of South America and Asia — by 2020. In 2018, the company, along with others, was fined by the Brazilian government for illegal deforestation in the Cerrado region, a massive savannah ecosystem adjacent to the rainforest. The following year, Cargill admitted it, along with other companies that had made similar commitments, would not reach its goal.
While the company had made commitments to stop deforestation in the Amazon, it said it would not support a similar effort in the Cerrado, where deforestation rates have skyrocketed. Nearly half the region is now deforested.
“More than 50 per cent has been bulldozed for animal feed and cattle and it’s in desperate need of help,” said Glenn Hurowitz, CEO of Mighty Earth, a Washington-based advocacy group that’s not connected to Stand.earth but has done extensive work tracking Cargill’s links to deforestation. “It’s an emergency situation.”
Hurowitz noted that there are fewer government and legal protections against deforestation in the Cerrado, making “private sector action that much more important.”
Mighty Earth’s satellite monitoring continues to find Cargill “driving destruction of native ecosystems across South America,” Hurowitz added, noting that the organization recently “caught Cargill red-handed, buying from a supplier who had illegally cleared protected land in the Amazon, in violation of the Soy Moratorium.”
Cargill, in its statement responding to the allegations, said: “We do not source soy from farmers who clear land illegally and have controls in place to prevent non-compliant product from entering our supply chains. If we find any violations of our Human Rights Policy or Policy on Forests, we take immediate action, which has included suspending suppliers,” a company spokesperson wrote.
In 2021, at the United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Cargill, along with other agricultural giants, pledged to halt “forest loss associated with agricultural commodity production and trade.” But the following year, when it revealed its plan to meet that pledge, Cargill’s customers, including giants such as Wal-Mart and Nestlé, said the plan was so weak it would prevent them from meeting their own climate and deforestation targets if they continued to buy raw materials from Cargill.
In its response to Inside Climate, Cargill said it has subsequently signed on to another pledge, at the 2022 climate summit in Egypt, to reduce emissions from land conversion and deforestation with the goal of keeping global temperature increases within 1.5 C of pre-industrial levels, the target enshrined in the Paris climate accord.
A major challenge, Jacobson noted, is that many buyers of Cargill’s commodities are forced to buy from the company — regardless of its environmental record — because its share of the market is so massive and consolidated.
“They supply all of McDonald’s eggs,” Jacobson explained, giving an example not directly related to forests. “So you can go to McDonald’s and say Cargill is doing a bad job and we want you to get your eggs somewhere else. Well, who’s got that many eggs? Companies have tried to source elsewhere, but it’s very, very challenging.”
The media blitz and call to action by Stand.earth is the first of its kind to “name and shame” the Cargill heirs, most of whom have little to do with the day-to-day business of the company, but have significant influence.
It comes after another novel attempt to go after the company — this one last month, when an environmental group, London-based ClientEarth, filed a first-ever complaint against Cargill, alleging it had breached a set of rules set by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
The OECD guidelines say that companies have to adhere to a certain set of practices to ensure they’re contributing to sustainable development.
“We’ve done a full review and Cargill doesn’t appear to be conducting any due diligence whatsoever to be sure that the soy passing through its ports isn’t linked to deforestation,” said Laura Dowley, a ClientEarth attorney.
Stand.earth, which is based in San Francisco, notified Cargill of the report and the publication of the letters. It had not gotten a response from the company or the Cargill-MacMillan family members.
Jacobson said he’s optimistic the Cargill-MacMillans will “do the right thing,” but said the group is prepared to continue its pressure campaign.
Hurowitz and Mighty Earth have also attempted to contact the family in recent years, without success.
“We’ve reached out to them before, several times, and they have not been responsive, despite a lot of evidence about what their company is doing,” Hurowitz said, noting that shareholders have successfully pressured companies to act on environmental concerns, including Procter & Gamble, which recently committed to zero-deforestation in its supply chains.
“I would hope that family members are asking serious questions of management about why Cargill has undermined efforts to create very common-sense conservation and climate actions,” Hurowitz said.
Todd Paglia, executive director of Stand.earth, said the group was simply calling on Cargill to uphold its pledges.
“We’re not asking for anything Cargill hasn’t already promised to do,” he said. “We’re asking for the fulfilment of those promises.”