An activist group and researchers tried to increase pressure on agribusiness giant Cargill on Wednesday to do more to fight deforestation and human rights abuse, releasing a report that accuses the company of not following through on commitments to help end such practices.
The report argues that the family-owned company has been misled by its managers and now should take the lead in ensuring it carries out its promises to fight forced child labor in the cocoa industry and protect forests and other natural resources. As one of the world's largest privately held companies and by far the largest grain distributor, Cargill is in a unique position to force positive changes, especially in ending deforestation, the groups said in the report.
"The destruction of the natural world is driven by agribusiness and agribusiness is driven by Cargill," said Todd Paglia, executive director of the environmental group Stand.Earth, at a news conference in Wayzata, Minnesota, a Minneapolis suburb where Cargill is based.
Besides the news conference, Stand.Earth highlighted the report by buying full page advertisements in The New York Times and Minneapolis Star Tribune newspapers. Later Wednesday, the group planned to deliver documents backing its report to the Wayzata headquarters of the families that own a majority of Cargill and ask that they be given to 20 leading members of the families.
In response to the report, Cargill released a statement saying the group "grossly mischaracterized" the company's efforts.
"At Cargill, we have an unwavering commitment to protect the human rights of those who work in our operations, supply chains and communities, and work tirelessly to eliminate deforestation and conversion in South America," the statement said. "We do not source soy from farmers who clear land illegally and have controls in place to prevent non-compliant product from entering our supply chains."
The company added that is has been transparent in its land use and human rights efforts and said it takes actions when it learns its policies have been violated.
According to its 2022 annual report, Cargill recorded $165 billion in revenue for the fiscal year ending May 31, 2022. The company says it has 155,000 employees and operates in 70 countries, with sales in 125 countries.
The report states that 193,000 square miles (500,000 square kilometers) of forest were destroyed through human activity from 2015 to 2020, primarily because of expansion of agriculture in South America, Central America and parts of Africa. Although Cargill has promised to end deforestation practices for products in its supply chain, the report argues the company has invested in ports and other infrastructure in South America that will lead to the removal of forests for land to grow soybeans.
The report, compiled with help from the Brazilian journalism organization Repórter Brasil and the nonprofit group AidEnvironment, also accuses Cargill of not following through on its commitments, first in 2001 and then in 2010, to end or at least reduce forced child labor in the cocoa industry. Cargill is one of the world's largest cocoa suppliers.
The report cited a U.S. Department of Labor-funded study that found the number of children harvesting cocoa in the Ivory Coast and Ghana and the prevalence of hazardous child labor in those countries had both increased.
"It's one thing not to meet an ambitious target," said Mathew Jacobson, director of Stand.Earth. "It's another to have the problems you claim to be addressing get worse."
Jacobson said he is hopeful the families that own most of Cargill will push for change if it realizes company executives are not making meaningful changes.
"We are not asking for anything the company has not already promised," the report says in its conclusion. "We seek implementation, not new commitments."