Environmentalists say Minnesota's Cargill partially to blame for Amazon burning

Cargill trades in Brazilian soy, and environmentalists say it profits from the destruction of the rain forest.

Cargill trades in Brazilian soy, and environmentalists say it profits from the destruction of the rain forest. Associated Press

The Amazon rainforest is burning.

Like the destruction of Notre Dame on a much larger and much more devastating scale, the world is looking on in horror as one of our richest and most fragile ecosystems goes up in smoke – along with the trees that clean our air, and the ancestral homes of countless indigenous people.

It can be difficult to understand why this is happening. But on Thursday evening, volunteers with the grassroots environmental nonprofit Mighty Earth gathered at the Minneapolis Institute of Art to draw attention to what they see as a key contributor to the blaze. Not the museum itself, but one of its chief donors.

“We are calling out Cargill for its role in driving the devastating fires destroying the Amazon,” organizer Michael Greenberg says. He and the volunteers want to remind both the museum and its benefactor that there “is no art on a dead planet.”

Experts say the fires are burning in a pattern we’ve come to expect when people clear forest for ranches and farms. The Amazon is not just “burning,” it is being burned – largely because Brazil is the world’s biggest exporter of beef and soy. We eat its cows, our animals eat its grains, and big banks and megacompanies all over the world profit from it.

Cargill, based in Minnesota, is about as mega as it gets. It’s the largest privately owned company in the United States, and one of the world’s largest food and ag companies. It’s also the biggest trader of Brazilian soy.

Mighty Earth has long taken issue with Cargill’s environmental and human rights practices. Earlier this year, organizers bestowed it with the dubious honor of being the “worst company in the world.”

Be that as it may, Cargill has long since pledged to “eliminate deforestation” in its business practices. More than a decade ago, it and a handful of other grain traders agreed to stop farming soybeans on cleared Amazonian lands.

But Mighty Earth and other advocacy organizations are having a hard time swallowing that. As the nonprofit pointed out, the 2006 Soy Moratorium doesn’t stop Cargill from buying from farmers who clear out large sections of forest for something other than soy. Nor does it stop it from profiting from the deforestation of other fragile habitats, like the Brazilian Cerrado or the Gran Chaco of Argentina.

Nor did it stop it and four other grain traders from buying over 3,000 tons of grain produced in Brazilian land that was supposed to be off-limits to farming just last year. The five companies ended up getting slapped with a $29 million fine by the Brazilian government.

“The deforestation crisis in Brazil and Bolivia wouldn’t be happening without companies like Cargill, Bunge, JBS, and their customers,” Mighty Earth’s recent study on the Amazonian crisis says.

Cargill sent a statement saying the company is "committed to protecting the Amazon," pointing to the Soy Moratorium as an example. 

"If cases of illegal activity are confirmed with any of our suppliers, we take immediate action in line with our forest and sustainable soy policeis and supplier code of conduct," it said. It added that the company is "strengthening its grievance process" to "articulate more clearly" what the company's doing to enforce it. 

Mighty Earth isn’t the only group pressing the company. Some of Norway’s biggest investors (with $170 billion in clout) are telling companies and banks to pressure Cargill and other food giants in light of the Amazon fires.

Should “dialog not achieve desired changes,” investment head Matthew Smith told Bloomberg, they plan to “exit companies that contribute to deforestation by 2025.”