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Minnetonka-based Cargill Inc. committed Tuesday to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in its entire supply chain — from farm fields to fast-food kitchens — by 30% per ton of product in the next decade.

The commitment follows a contentious summer when Cargill faced severe activist criticism for its presence as a soy trader in Brazil during the recent spate of fires in and around the Amazon.

Its latest announcement coincides with the United Nations’ climate summit, officially called the Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Convention on Climate Change, in Madrid this week.

“We’ve come under scrutiny around what is happening in soy in South America and Brazil, and that has just continued to reinforce for us that there’s a critical role for us to play in food and agriculture in doing what we do in a more sustainable way,” Ruth Kimmelshue, head of Cargill’s supply chain and sustainability, told the Star Tribune. “Since then, there’s been a pretty significant ramp-up in attention [both externally and internally] on ensuring that we execute on our purpose around sustainable supply chains.”

This new target, known as a Scope 3 goal, encompasses the emissions from Cargill’s suppliers and customers, which are numerous and wide-ranging. This target will be added to Cargill’s Scope 1 and Scope 2 goals outlined last year to reduce emissions produced by its own processes and energy purchases by 10%. And while Cargill’s Scope 1 and 2 goals are an absolute reduction regardless of the company’s growth, its Scope 3 goal is relative to the amount of food produced.

Still, Cargill says, this commitment has been approved by the Science Based Targets initiative, a collaboration between the CDP (formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project), the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute (WRI) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

“As a large and influential company in the agriculture sector, Cargill’s actions will positively impact the food industry and help companies further downstream reduce their own emissions,” said Cynthia Cummis, WRI’s director of private-sector climate mitigation, in a news release.

Cargill also said Tuesday that it has signed on to the CEO climate pledge and the We Are Still In coalition of businesses, cities, states, faith organizations and institutions that opposes the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.

“Climate change left unchecked will destabilize the food system, as well as the farmers and ranchers at the heart of it,” David MacLennan, Cargill’s chief executive, said in a statement. “We are determined to innovate, scale and implement solutions together with producers, our customers and governments worldwide.”

A review of Cargill’s supply chain determined that a 30% emissions reduction, based on its 2017 levels, would align with the Paris commitment for keeping global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels.

Although the privately held company may not be a household name, it has considerable influence in the global food system. Cargill buys, sells and trades raw food commodities across the planet. It also is one of the world’s largest beef producers. Cargill makes and sells food ingredients from cooking oils to cocoa and produces a suite of bioindustrial products from epoxies to coalescing agents.

While the company has individual sustainability action plans for its major food supply chains, it has come under fire from critics who say its soy policy doesn’t go far enough in protecting native vegetation in South America. The intensity of this scrutiny has forced Cargill to rethink the way it sets sustainability goals. The company is traditionally more conservative in its approach, wanting to know exactly how it would achieve external commitments before making them.

“The good news is our word is our bond and we do what we say we are going to do. The bad news is you can become very risk averse because you don’t want to not do what you say you are going to do,” Kimmelshue said. “As an organization, we are having to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable because it’s what a whole range of stakeholders, including employees, expect.”

Since this summer of reckoning, Kimmelshue said employees have been speaking up more on the company’s climate-related issues, and leaders are trying to do a better job of supporting and encouraging their ideas.

Cargill doesn’t know exactly how it will achieve its 30% per ton reduction goal for its entire supply chain, but a large chunk will come in its North America beef business and new pilot programs for regenerative agriculture practices with farmers.

“We have the opportunity and obligation, just by virtue of who we are and where we play, to have that kind of leadership. We can’t sit back and let somebody else do it because, guess what, nobody else is as well-positioned as we are,” Kimmelshue said. “If you are going to be a leader, you have got to be out in front, and that’s not always easy. But we can and should figure out ways to push ourselves a little bit harder.”

Kristen Leigh Painter • 612-673-4767