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Cargill speeds up timeline to end deforestation in Brazil. Will it be enough?

Christopher Vondracek, Star Tribune on

Published in Business News

Agribusiness giant Cargill on Monday moved forward a goal to eliminate deforestation and land conversion from both direct and indirect supply chains in key South American countries, including Brazil, by five years.

The announcement impacts vital commodities — soy, corn, wheat and cotton — and came just days before the start of COP28, the large global climate summit, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

"We are actively shaping a future where critical ecosystems will be protected for generations to come," Pilar Cruz, Cargill's chief sustainability officer, said in a statement.

But the push also comes after months of renewed and consistent criticism of the company by environmental groups — including protests at Cargill's Minnetonka, Minnesota, headquarters — over its role in sourcing soy from Brazil's vulnerable and carbon-rich ecosystems.

Soybeans surge

When Michael Cordonnier arrived in Brazil's Matto Grosso state 50 years ago with the Peace Corps, he saw cattle ranches, dirt roads and Indigenous communities.

 

He didn't see soybeans.

"Soybeans were photoperiodic," said Cordonnier, now an Illinois-based agronomist and grain consultant specializing in South America. "When you're closer to the equator, you don't have that change (in sunlight to trigger flowering)."

But the bonanza was coming. In the ensuing decades, Brazil witnessed an explosion in soybeans, the utility crop used in fuels, plastics and animal feed. This growth brought many Brazilian farmers new prosperity as global commodity traders set up operations. But it also accelerated deforestation and climate change.

This tension — between local economic independence and the international battle against global warming — is increasingly landing at the doorstep of the powerful middlemen, including Cargill, that buy the crops and create new markets for the product.

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