Giant Steps

After taking some hard shots from critics, Cargill has bounced back with big strides toward sustainability.


Queen Alexandra's Birdwing

The Oro Province of Papua New Guinea is the only place in the world to find the Queen Alexandra's Birdwing. Cargill and Conservation International are working together to determine the habitat this endangered butterfly needs to survive.

As anyone familiar with folklore knows, it’s not always easy being a giant. Cargill, the nation’s largest privately owned company and a colossus of global agribusiness, has certainly suffered its share of slings and arrows on account of its size. With food production and trading operations scattered across the developing world, the Minnesota-based company has been a target of activists concerned about the effects of industrial-scale agriculture on endangered ecosystems.

In 2006, Greenpeace protesters upset over the destruction of Brazilian rainforest by soy farmers blockaded Cargill’s soybean export terminal on the Amazon River in Santarém. Two years later, the Rainforest Action Network slipped a boat into a regatta on Lake Minnetonka, near the company’s headquarters, rigged with a sail bearing the company’s logo over the slogan “Biofueling Climate Change”—a disparaging reference to the company’s role in exporting soy and palm oil from Brazil and southeast Asia (where palm plantations have also displaced rainforests) for biodiesel production.

Environmentalists may have reason to be wary of the company leaving big footprints on its far-flung stomping grounds. But it’s also worth noting that Cargill has forged friendships in some unlikely quarters.

In 2004, Cargill joined forces with The Nature Conservancy on the Responsible Soy Project, a certification program that gives a seal of approval to “forest-friendly” Brazilian farmers. After the Greenpeace protest, Cargill announced it would no longer do business with soy farmers around Santarém who weren’t in compliance with Brazil’s strict forest code, which requires landowners to maintain natural vegetation on 80 percent of their land. The Nature Conservancy staff now supplies Cargill with information to ensure compliance on the part of individual farmers.

In Indonesia, on the island of Borneo, Cargill has teamed up with Fauna & Flora International to protect the forest habitat of the orangutan and other endangered species. The organization is surveying Cargill’s palm oil plantation on the island for “high conservation-value forest.” Once FFI completes this initial work, it will help Cargill develop a conservation plan for the habitat. Cargill has a similar arrangement with Conservation International in Papua New Guinea to protect the habitat of the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, the world’s largest butterfly.

Mark Murphy, Cargill’s point person on environmental issues, acknowledges that the 2006 release of Eating Up the Amazon, a Greenpeace report that held Cargill’s feet to the fire for its practices in Brazil, was “a tipping point” in the company’s approach to perceived environmental threats in its supply chains. Although Cargill had already taken steps to prevent deforestation from soy production, Murphy says the Greenpeace report accelerated its efforts by putting pressure on big Cargill customers like McDonald’s.

“Today, corporate responsibility is front of mind for consumers,” says Murphy. “When Coke and McDonald’s get pressure from consumers who want responsible products, they look to their suppliers. We’re their suppliers. So we’re feeling increasing demands from our customers.”

An almost immediate response to the Greenpeace report was Cargill’s active participation in negotiating an industry-wide moratorium on purchasing soy planted on newly deforested lands within the Amazon biome. Greenpeace, one of several environmental organizations that took part in the negotiations, has been surprisingly congratulatory of efforts made by Cargill and other soy traders to uphold and extend the moratorium.

Cargill and Greenpeace still have their differences, but Murphy says the relationship has significantly improved—so much that Greenpeace recently accepted an invitation to a Cargill management meeting to participate in a panel discussion about environmental impacts.

“I think Cargill is recognizing that we need to have dialogue with broader audiences to understand these issues better,” says Murphy. “But Cargill is a house of 80 businesses, and our various businesses look at those issues in very different ways. We have to manage what is in the best interest of all those businesses. So we have to take a very balanced, thoughtful approach.”

DAVID MAHONEY is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who has contributed to a variety of national and regional magazines, including Esquire, The History Channel Magazine, Delta Sky and more. He wrote an article on the Institute on the Environment and its director, Jon Foley, for the January/February 2009 issue of Minnesota magazine.