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Miranda River photographed in Corumbá, Mato Grosso do Sul. Pantanal Biome. Picture made in 2017.

Consumers demand sustainability but are they realistic about the timeline?

August 22, 2019

A recent report dubbed Cargill ‘The Worst Company in the World’ on the basis that it failed to live up to its sustainability promises particularly around deforestation. But is vilification really the best way for consumers to support change at the global corporate level?

“Consumers want to know where their food comes from and they’re voting with their pocketbooks.”

You’d find it hard not to hear some version of this sentence at a food conference these days, but I’ve often wondered if it’s actually true today or more the direction we think, and hope, we’re going. According to data and research service Nielsen, when it comes to the environmental footprint of their food, 48% of US consumers already say they are willing to change their consumption habits to reduce it while spending on sustainable-focused products hit $128.5 billion in 2018, climbing 20% from 2014.

Responding to this shift in consumer behaviour, countless consumer businesses have launched sustainability initiatives in response. It can be hard to suss out who is making meaningful progress and who is trying to turn an extra dollar.

Recent initiatives in the agriculture industry include Danone’s “Farming for Generations” coalition, a regenerative dairy project with major players including Corteva, DSM, Yara, MSD Animal Health, and leading agriculture university Wageningen. Meanwhile, General Mills, Anheuser-Busch, and Tyson have also launched sustainability initiatives aimed at encouraging producers to adopt more sustainable farming practices while increasing consumer education.

Cargill, the largest privately held company in the world, has made a number of commitments to increase its sustainability footprint throughout its multifaceted, global operations. After being one of five grain trading houses slapped with a $29 million fine last year for engaging in activities related to illegal deforestation in Brazil’s imperiled Cerrado Region, it pledged $30 million in a new sustainability initiative to stop deforestation. It also claims to have adopted new policies and programs in its cocoa, palm oil, and soy production supply chains.

The Worst Company in the World

Global environmental protection lobbying group Mighty Earth released a report last month knighting international ag corporation Cargill as “The Worst Company in the World” based on a list of alleged wrongdoings that the company has carried out: selling contaminated meat, child labor in its cocoa supply chain, water pollution in the Midwest, and the displacement of indigenous populations and wildlife due to deforestation for agricultural production land.

But is it fair to reduce the conversation over whether Cargill has done enough to become more sustainable to name-calling across the internet? And is that the most productive way to encourage change at the global corporate level?

“Despite great strides by its competitors and commitments from its CEO, Cargill has been found time and again to be not only worst-in-class on issues ranging from forced labor to the destruction of the Earth’s last intact forests, but also obstructing the efforts of others,” Glenn Hurowitz, CEO at Mighty Earth, wrote to AFN. “We’d like to see Cargill live up to its commitments. Eliminate deforestation, native ecosystem destruction, and human rights abuses from its supply chain.”

Much of Mighty Earth’s vilification of Cargill has to do with Cargill’s opposition to the 2017 Cerrado Manifesto, which calls for an outright end to soy production in the Cerrado.

“We remain committed to a moratorium in the Amazon, but a solution that works in one scenario will not necessarily work in another. The Cerrado requires a different approach that allows both farmers and forests to coexist, as Brazil depends on the Cerrado for much of its agricultural productivity and farming presents an economic opportunity for impoverished locals,” Cargill’s spokesperson told AFN. “We are aligned on the need to address the challenges in Brazil and remain fully committed to ending deforestation in our supply chains. Where we disagree is on how we most effectively solve the problem.” 

Cargill’s alternative to the Cerrado Manifesto is its deforestation initiative and soy action plan.

The missed target shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Cargill’s scale is staggering. It’s a transatlantic, cargo ship-sized corporation with footholds in countless industries and supply chains. Changing policies, retooling workflows, educating employees, identifying human rights violations with local contractors, and keeping its investors happy in the process are not things that can happen overnight. 

Cargill isn’t alone in missing the 2020 target to remove deforestation from its supply chain either. A number of palm oil importers in Europe also reported being behind schedule, according to an analysis by the Palm Oil Transparency Coalition. And, as Ethical Corp points out, the corporates are only saying they are behind schedule – not abandoning the mission altogether.

Pledging too much too soon?

Maybe the misstep in this instance was pledging too much too soon. If corporations are able to hit these targets in 2021 or 2022, should we still vilify them for their failure to achieve the 2020 objective, especially when many of them are making measurable progress on improving their sustainability footprints?

“Our commitment to ending deforestation in our supply chains has never wavered. We acknowledge that we need to move faster and there is more work to be done. Our policies and action plans, updated just last month, outline the steps we are taking to make that happen,” a spokesperson for Cargill wrote to AFN. “We are not shying away from the conversation or the work that needs to be done. In fact, we are increasing our efforts and are working actively every day with partners to advance our efforts to end deforestation.”

Some of these efforts include serving as one of the leaders of the GTC Cerrado Working Group, which includes businesses across the industry working together to find an industry-wide solution for the region based on local environmental, social and economic conditions, working with WRI on their Global Forest Watch technology tool, and the recent formation of a forest advisory panel, pulling experts from academia, industry, environmental groups and NGOs and producers/farmers to help advise us on next steps. 

But as Hurowitz pointed out in his email to AFN, policy commitments and flashy initiatives backed by millions of dollars need time-bound implementation, clear deliverables, and objective review. 

What Mighty Earth and other consumers may be discounting is just how much impact consumers are starting to have when it comes to causing change. Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) is fighting court battle over court battle over whether it knew that its glyphosate-based RoundUp product could cause cancer and it’s losing. Consumers became so concerned with the presence of genetically-modified material in food that a federal bill was passed requiring companies to disclose the presence of GMO material on food packaging. At the state level, consumers have used the ballot initiative system in 12 states to enact sweeping reforms providing greater welfare protections for farm animals including laying hens, breeding sows, and veal calves. 

Consumers are wide awake now and they are prepared to put their purchasing and voting power to use if need be.

But the same way that consumers can’t expect to still pay $1.99 per dozen for pasture-raised eggs, consumers can’t expect one of the largest companies in the world to completely change course overnight. Adopting an entirely new approach to food production is a lofty task and the road to get there will surely be littered with missteps, mistakes, and failures. 

Or, as an optimist may describe them, learning opportunities.

If we are able to somehow support Cargill in one day being dubbed The Most Sustainable Company in the world, however, the trickle-down effect of its new technologies, supply chains systems, policies, and practices that it used to get there would be world-changing. 

In the battle to push sustainability at the global corporate level, we just might catch more flies – and save more bees – with honey.

Editor’s Note: What do you think? Lauren is our resident first-generation farmer, is a partner in a grass-fed, pasture-raised beef, lamb, and goat operation that employs regenerative agriculture practices. She’s generally pretty skeptical about the sustainability initiatives of agrifood corporates, especially in the meat industry, so this is a bold break from the norm for her! Reach out to her to let her know what you think [email protected].

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