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Climate change and Minnesota agribusiness: a reason for hope

Too often big business is written off as an environmental problem, without exploring its potential as a tool for progress. Agribusiness must be part of the solution for climate-change adaptation, especially for smallholder farmers in the global south. Right now, the fields in Minnesota may be covered with snow, but according to social responsibility reports, corporations like Cargill and General Mills are helping farmers in developing countries improve their livelihoods. Conscious consumers should demand more information about these programs to determine if they are creating the social impact they claim to generate. 

The author at the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris

Last month, I attended the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris to research debates about agriculture and climate change. I talked to a representative of ActionAid International who works with rural communities in southeastern Zimbabwe. She told me about devastating floods and horrible droughts that have damaged fields and taken lives. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, 1.5 billion people live in smallholder households. Agriculturalists in the United States will suffer from climate change, but as a main carbon emitter, we are morally obligated to assist more vulnerable farmers in other countries.   

Smallholder farmers need access to markets to ensure they earn income for their food and prevent spoilage. A report launched by Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in Paris, titled “Climate Change, Global Food Security, and the US Food System,” [PDF] explains that without adaptation measures, climate change will increase stress on the systems that deliver safe food. Floods could prevent river navigation and global trade through ports. High temperatures could increase food loss without proper storage or processing capabilities, many of which developing regions already lack. Corporations that rely on farmers in the global south have the unique capability and responsibility to support their welfare.

At the climate negotiations, corporate associates touted sustainability as both good for humanity and business. Francesco Tramontin, a representative of the multinational food company Mondelez International, spoke on a panel about collaboration within supply chains. In 2012, the company launched the Cocoa Life program to invest $400 million in the livelihoods of 200,000 cocoa farmers by 2022. A stable cocoa supply chain is also good for Mondelez. One of Cocoa Life’s partners is Cargill.

According to its 2015 Corporate Social Responsibility Report, Cargill is investing in smallholder farmers too. The company opened a maize milling plant in Zambia to provide a reliable market for farmers and works with CARE International in India to train farmers on market functions. Reading this report, I was surprised that Cargill is supporting the specific kinds of interventions that many academics have recommended. General Mills’ 2015 Global Responsibility Report shows the company funded CARE to build a rice storage warehouse in Madagascar, where they source vanilla and train farmers on curing the product.

Unfortunately, this information is very vague.  If you are critical like me, you’re probably wondering if that rice storage facility actually gets used or what happens when the mill breaks down. Do these projects have real effects on people’s lives? Do they help them adapt to climate change? We cannot trust that corporations support farmers in the developing world simply because they say they do in their social responsibility reports.

Measuring social impact is tricky. As Tramontin explained, social responsibility is not about checking off a list of actions; it’s about the effect of those actions. A highly respected method to assess the impact of a development program is a control-randomized trial. A trial compares the effect of an intervention in one village to another village that did not receive the intervention. According to Tramontin, Mondelez used third-party Harvard researchers to evaluate its Cocoa Life program. Corporations like Cargill and General Mills should conduct control-randomized trials and make the evaluations of their initiatives readily available. Land O’Lakes International Development, for example, publishes reports with USAID on their programs that support farmers with market access, food safety and crop micro-insurance.

Of course, corporate social responsibility is not a silver bullet. Not all smallholder farmers produce goods demanded by international companies. Farmers are vulnerable to world economic trends when their livelihood depends on cash crops for global trade. Smallholders, especially women farmers, also need more social capital to be resilient.

Agribusiness is a leading contributor to climate change. The industry and lawmakers should do more to address this issue and support the farmers most affected by our carbon-intensive lifestyles. Minnesota agribusiness seems to be taking small steps toward this goal. We need to demand more of this effort and more transparency. I am not convinced Cargill and General Mills are improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and their ability to adapt to climate change because I have not seen impartial, rigorous reviews. But I am hopeful for this possibility. 

Jessica Timerman, an economics major, is a junior at Macalester College. She attended COP21 with a student research delegation from Macalester. 


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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by elli ansari on 01/19/2016 - 11:28 am.

    Thank you for your report

    Thank you for taking the time to attend the conference in Paris and for reporting your observations and critique. Everybody needs to eat–and everybody should want to keep their eye on the food supply and the climate and environmental changes afoot. If there’s no food-there is no peace. I also appreciated that you maintain optimism. Keep your courage and keep the info coming.

  2. Submitted by Shannon Heine on 01/19/2016 - 04:39 pm.

    Jessica, Thanks for being so interested in this important issue. Like you, we at General Mills are deeply committed to promoting sustainable agricultural practices and addressing climate change across our value chain. To that end, I thought you might have interest in a recent editorial piece from our EVP of Supply Chain, John Church, on our work in reducing greenhouse gas emissions:

    We’d be happy to share additional information about our ongoing efforts in this area and answer any questions you may have.
    – Shannon
    General Mills

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