Cargill puts up $30 million to end forest destruction in Brazil

Kristen Leigh Painter
Star Tribune (minneapolis)
This Sept. 15, 2009 file photo shows a deforested area near Novo Progresso in Brazil's northern state of Para.

Cargill Inc. is putting up $30 million to fund new ideas for ending deforestation in Brazil, where the conflict between economic growth and environmental protection attracted global attention.

The Minnesota-based agribusiness, a key player in Brazilian soy production, said Thursday that industry will fail to end deforestation by 2020, and that more companies, governments and organizations need to band together to make a more concerted effort if real solutions are to be found.

“We can all agree, and certainly the science is very clear, the climate is changing and there is an urgent need to take action to end deforestation,” Kimmelshue said.

Soybean farming has continued encroaching on important ecosystems in Brazil, leading to the destruction of critical forests and native vegetations. Demand for the crop is growing as the world’s appetite for meat grows. Soy is often a base ingredient in livestock feed.

This growing demand encourages many South American farmers to expand their cropland. Cargill is in a powerful position as the world’s largest commodities trader and has taken steps in recent years to slow deforestation in those regions.

But it hasn’t been enough.

The company, its peers and international organizations will fall short of reaching their goals, said Ruth Kimmelshue, Cargill’s head of supply chain and chief sustainability officer.

“I’m not going to admit defeat, but we can all be reasonable people and see that we have significantly more work to do,” Kimmelshue said Wednesday morning.

More than a decade ago, the company and its industry peers agreed to a purchase moratorium on soybeans grown on newly deforested land in the Amazon. Cargill also monitors the forest activity using geospatial tools.

In 2014, Cargill signed the United Nations’ New York Declaration on Forests, the first global pledge to end and reverse the loss of forests.

Soy production in South America is proving to be more difficult to make environmentally sound than Cargill’s other food supply chains. “We don’t believe our industry has the answers to this complex challenge today,” Kimmelshue said.

Cargill outlined a six-point action plan for itself related to the destruction of forests in several critical biomes of Brazil, including the Amazon, Cerrado, and Grand Chaco, and asked its competitors to join in.

The company is looking for a third-party entity to lead what it hopes will be a cross-sector coalition.

“We are prepared to spend the money as soon as possible and as soon as we see ideas that can drive substantive change,” Kimmelshue said.

While Cargill may not be a household name, its influence and role in the global food system is massive.

“I think you are all aware that Cargill is a big company,” Kimmelshue said, “But we feel very intensely that deforestation is bigger than even Cargill.”

Environmental groups have pushed for changes by Cargill, recognizing the impact it could have.

Kimmelshue said some groups have suggested Cargill leave the region rather than giving farmers an incentive to cut down more forests and destroy native vegetation to grow more soybean crops.

But she said that is not would only make it worse.

“Exiting high-risk areas will not solve the problem. It simply will move it,” Kimmelshue said. “We are hoping that we will rally the industry.”