Analyzing Cargill’s 2012 CSR Report: Good Intentions, Misses the Big Issue

corn-droughtCargill has issued its annual CSR report. The report outlines the food and agriculture conglomerate's approach to corporate responsibility, with a special emphasis on its work to address global food security.

"Cargill is acting on its vision to be the global leader in nourishing people to address the complex challenge of feeding a world on its way to 9 billion people," the company stated in a release. The report includes "examples of Cargill's work to expand access to food; improve nutrition and alleviate hunger; and increase agricultural productivity and incomes while ensuring responsible land use."

Efforts to combat food insecurity are becoming essential as a variety of factors — including climate change and a rising global population — conspire to increasingly jeopardize our ability to produce enough food to feed everyone.

Crop ecologists tell us that, as a rule of thumb, we can expect a 10-percent decline in grain yields for every 1-degree-Celsius increase in temperature above optimum during the growing season. In short, as global temperatures continue to rise, crop yields are certain to diminish.

Already we are beginning to see the effects of increased temperature on agricultural productivity. In 2012, for example, almost 80 percent of agricultural land in the U.S. is experiencing a severe drought which the U.S. Government's leading environmental scientist has linked to climate change. The USDA reported that, "The most severe and extensive drought in at least 25 years is seriously affecting U.S. agriculture, with impacts on the crop and livestock sectors and with the potential to affect food prices at the retail level."

Likewise, the 2003 European heat wave that killed approximately 70,000 people also cut corn yields by a third.

As with all climate-related problems, diminishing agricultural yield is a global issue. A particularly salient example is in Bangladesh, where just a three-foot rise in sea levels (half of that which is predicted by century's end) would inundate half of that country's rice land. This would seriously jeopardize the food security of that country's already impoverished 164 million people.

Other agricultural regions rely on annual water runoff from glaciers that are steadily disappearing due to rising temperatures. In India, the Gangotri Glacier, which helps to keep the Ganges flowing during the dry season, is retreating. The Ganges is by the far the largest source of surface water irrigation in India, the world's second largest rice producer.

A similar phenomenon is occurring across China's Yellow River and Yangtze River basins, home to over half a billion people combined. As glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau continue to recede, China's agricultural yield will be severely threatened. Yao Tandong, a leading Chinese glaciologist, says that this glacial retreat "will eventually lead to an ecological catastrophe."

Exacerbating this problem is the steady increase in global population. Cargill's CSR report reminds us that the world's population will exceed 9 billion by 2050, necessitating a 70% increase in global food production. While diminishing crop yields and increasing population might mean higher food prices for those of us in the developed world, it can mean starvation for the majority of the world's population that lives in the undeveloped world.

Thus, food insecurity represents a serious and perhaps insurmountable challenge, and understanding the facts helps us contextualize the accomplishments that Cargill has enumerated in their latest CSR report.

Cargill, a privately-held company, ought to be lauded for its food donations and other charitable giving, which reached almost $70 million across 57 countries in fiscal year 2012. But food insecurity is a problem that requires a more systemic approach if it is to be solved, as Greg Page, Cargill's Chairman and CEO, acknowledged.

"Providing emergency assistance is the right thing to do," said Page, "but the public and private sectors also need to focus on long-term solutions to hunger and work together to ensure that all 7 billion people on this planet have access to safe, nutritious and affordable food."

That said, Cargill's approach to food insecurity focuses primarily on improved agricultural productivity and greater access to food, both of which are perhaps better understood in the light of profit maximization rather than hunger alleviation. Indeed, global food conglomerates like Cargill will be well served by opening up developing markets to genetically modified seeds that can withstand higher temperatures.

Such an approach, uncoupled with an emphasis on reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, is unlikely to get us very far. Heat-resistant crops are an inherently unsustainable solution: photosynthesis ceases at around 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

Image credit: CraneStation