This week the food industry giant, Cargill, shocked the agri-tech world by siding with the Non-GMO Project in announcing a closer relationship in getting more of its products listed as GMO-free. Although Cargill lamely tried to underplay it (while they work with the Non-GMO Project, they don’t endorse their views), the repercussions of this about-face are just starting to be felt.
Cargill is, by any standard, huge with well over 100 billion USD revenue in 2016. Unless you have a very big garden, it is likely that much of what you ate today, anywhere in the world, went through their purchasing or processing networks. Cargill is invisible – you won’t find many of their products on your grocery store shelves, but from sweeteners to shampoos to malting to animal feed to preparing your Chicken McNuggets, Cargill has its fingers in so many of your pies. Cargill is a privately-held company (founded by William Cargill in 1865) – they can make long-term investments and science-based decisions that may go against popular opinions (from palm oil to cocoa to GMOs) without risking shareholder revolt or a need to engage the public. They could afford to make the best business decisions based on science and technology.
This last point is why their tacit support of the Non-GMO Project is so frightening and mind-numbing. Unlike other companies in the food chain, Cargill were under no pressure to bow to the brand pressure of the lunatic foodies to support non-GMO alternatives. Given the volume of their markets, pandering to the small organic niche market was not necessary. Seeing the outrage this stupid alliance with the Non-GMO Project has caused in the science and agricultural communities one can only assume something larger under foot.
What was Cargill’s motivation?
The head of Cargill, Willy Sutton, spotted an opportunity too big to pass up or let things like principles or commitment to science interfere with. After years of lies and scaremongering, the organic food lobby has created a market growing far more rapidly than anything farmers could ever meet. This will of course push margins (prices) up radically. With a near-monopoly dominance of global food trading exchanges and distribution channels, Cargill is best positioned to exploit resources in poor (organic by default) countries and export organic production to affluent consumers in wealthy countries at an enormous premium. This will no doubt increase food security stresses in countless vulnerable populations (who don’t buy Cargill-processed commodities). In controlling more of the organic supply chain, they can then squeeze out the cottage industries that had been supplying local, ideologically pure, but very small organic food chains and focus on controlling the expansion of organic into the mainstream market. The gullible people at the Non-GMO Project are inherently stupid so it is not surprising that they have not noticed how they have been played by a corporate giant.
This is awful at so many levels. Cargill is a freight train running without any ethical controls with a strategy that will promote more unscientific food fears, create the potential for famines in developing countries, wipe out the present weak organic food chains and bankrupt farmers around the world by increasing their risks and lowering their yields. The only good news is for the 90% of shares in the Cargill family.
How do you stop an out-of-control freight train?
Farmers are outraged by Cargill’s indifference to science, farming and global food security. But what can farmers do? Cargill knows full well that they have farmers by the balls. Who else will buy their soy beans or maize? Science advocates have little influence in creating outrage – Cargill even callously admitted their decision was not at all based on science (that it was all about marketing to the ignorant who want to pay more for a useless “non-GMO” label). Without a risk of shareholder revolt, the Cargill family can do what they want to make a profit (and they seem content on destroying the food chain, global food security and the public trust in conventional agriculture). The organic food industry is not going to find integrity when they have just co-opted.
Should regulators wake up to the threat of a monopoly of the food chain and look at restricting the Cargill family from wiping out the existing organic distribution network? Two words: free market. Two more words: Trump administration.
In order to stop the Cargill family from strangling conventional farmers, reinforcing irrational public fear of the safe conventional food chain, sucking resources and prosperity from developing countries and dominating a growing organic supply chain, people concerned with preserving scientific integrity will have to pull a page from the activist playbook. Cargill’s weak spot is not the farmers but their clients. And in order to get the Cargill family to show more respect to farmers, one particular client may have some influence.
McDonald’s is one of Cargill’s largest clients. From beef patties to fries to the Chicken McNuggets, Cargill supplies McDonald’s kitchens from Japan to Canada. McDonald’s has run many campaigns in support to quality food produced by hard-working farmers. I doubt that McDonald’s would be ready to follow the Cargill family down their path of pro-organic bullshit. Perhaps the McDonald’s procurement director can help Cargill see reason and return to the realm of science and evidence. Perhaps the McDonald’s Corporate Social Responsibility director can help Cargill apologise to farmers and prevent sucking valuable food resources from developing countries. Perhaps McDonald’s PR director can announce that they will no longer source from Cargill until they break their ties with the Non-GMO Project and acknowledge that promoting organic food is not science-based and not in their interest, as a food-chain supplier, to support.
I think the best way to stop a freight train threatening to destroy the global food supply chain for the profits of a single family is to get those who support farmers to boycott McDonald’s restaurants. If 500 McDonald’s outlets in rural communities see significant sales drops, they will notice. If 5000 McDonald’s restaurants are affected they will react. The next step would be for farmers to publicly refuse to supply McDonald’s networks until they break their partnerships with Cargill or until the Cargill family disowns their erroneous romp with the organic-industry food lobby.
I understand that most farmers would not want to resort to the petty activist campaign strategy of hitting the soft, vulnerable underbelly of the supply chain. But I also understand that farmers do not want their livelihoods choked by an unaccountable corporation acting only on a marketing motivation. Farmers continue to lose their voice in questions that concern their activities, opportunities and futures.
The disgraceful behaviour of the Cargill family is, first and foremost, an insult to farmers, undermining public trust and putting marketing opportunity over sound, evidence-based agri-technology.
Cargill is a train-wreck about to take down the global food chain.