New Cargill CEO on role in global food chain: 'Food can't be weaponized'

Christopher Vondracek, Star Tribune on

Published in Business News

With a Texan drawl and his V-neck sweater zipped up, Cargill's new CEO might seem uncomfortable with the plaster of white snow and hoar-frosted trees behind him outside the windows of the pyramid-shaped executive offices on the Wayzata campus of the global grain giant.

But Brian Sikes, former chief operating officer and head of protein who was promoted as the family-owned company's 10th CEO earlier this year, has ascended within the hermetic world of Cargill, which, he said, feels mostly the same everywhere — whether in Brazil, Vietnam or the western suburbs of Minneapolis.

"They were moved a lot," Sikes said of his four adult children. "I have a belief that Cargill people are built differently."

The shoes Sikes fills are large. Sikes' predecessor, David MacLennan, led the company through a tumultuous era, from 2013 to the end of 2022, navigating trade wars during the divisive Trump presidency, the coronavirus pandemic, and increasing calls for equity and sustainability. Cargill is a famously private company that not only — as its executives often repeat — feeds the world but also participates in an agricultural supply line that is collectively one of the greatest producers of carbon emissions in the world.

Those challenges largely still sit before Sikes, but the mild-mannered CEO appears calm and eager to chart the next path of a company spawned from a grain elevator in northeast Iowa in the final year of the Civil War.

"When you lead a big, global company, you know big is bad, which is unfair. But that's the reality we live in," Sikes said. "It's what we sign up for. ... It's not going to be the best part of the job. I don't know where you can make a bigger impact than Cargill."


But big also means joining hands with the world's leadership to ship grain in and out of rogue nations or procure other raw foodstuffs, from salmon in the North Sea to cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast.

No challenge has been as vexing lately as Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Europe's breadbasket.

He says Cargill — which has drawn criticism for remaining in Russia — has not spoken directly with President Vladimir Putin. But he has relied on intermediaries, such as the Chinese ambassador, to channel his message to sympathetic voices inside Russia.

"Food can't be weaponized," Sikes said.


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