Issue 184

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Ram's Horn #184

Bird-Watching Cargill
by Brewster Kneen

Last month I went bird watching in San Francisco Bay. The chosen location was on the dykes around Cargill's massive salt ponds which were once ecologically rich wetlands. Getting there was half the fun, as we had to pass through -- actually around -- a huge garbage dump that teemed with trucks like flies on a dead sheep. We had to report our mission to head office on the way in, and report the birds seen on the way out to confirm our legitimacy. But more on this later.

tweet tweet

Redesigning the old corporation
The past few years have been hard on Cargill: sales dropped from their all-time high of $56 billion in 1996 to $46 billion in 1998. 1999 sales were $48 billion. Cargill, however, is not a slow learner. Recognizing that commodity trading -- from real commodities to derivatives and currency 'commodities' -- has its limits, and risks that exceed those normally acceptable to Cargill, and that global commodity trade is not likely to grow significantly, Cargill appears to be repositioning itself to occupy more segments of the industrial food chain. Its press releases now carry the tag line, "Cargill . . . distinctive customer solutions in supply chain management, food applications and health and nutrition."

Cargill is not wasting any time in redesigning itself, as the following news items indicate.

In June, Cargill announced that it was selling its worldwide coffee operation to Ecom Agroindustrial Corp. of Switzerland. (Conjures up a really good cup of coffee, eh?) Then the very next day Cargill announced it would relinquish its role as one of the world's three largest rubber traders. (This news appeared in a tiny item in the Globe & Mail, but can't be found on Cargill's website.)

On September 18th, Cargill announced the sale of its North American seed business, Cargill Hybrid Seeds, to Mycogen Seeds, a wholly owned subsidiary of Dow Chemical Company, completing the exit from the seeds business it began with the shrewd sale of its non-North American seed business two years ago to Monsanto just before Monsanto's creditors put a halt to its $8.1 billion buying spree.

Dow plans to integrate Cargill Hybrid Seeds into Mycogen Seeds to create a new seed unit under Dow AgroSciences. The purchase will include all seed research, production and distribution facilities of Cargill Hybrid Seeds in the United States and Canada, except for Cargill's InterMountain Canola, Goertzen Seed Research and the Western Canadian seed distribution business. Financial terms of the sale were not disclosed. -- Cargill press release,18/9/00

The next day Cargill announced that it had formed a joint venture with Florida-based SunPure to combine their North American citrus processing businesses to form the largest non-branded citrus processor in North America. Cargill will be the general partner of the venture responsible for day-to-day management.


Cargill's North American juice operations include a processing plant in Frostproof, Fla., and a juice terminal in Elizabeth, N.J. SunPure's operations include a citrus processing plant in Avon Park, Fla., and the world's largest grapefruit processing plant in Fort Pierce, Fla. SunPure focuses on flavour ingredients, beverage applications and citrus processing. This is the second joint venture announced by Cargill and SunPure this year. In February, the two companies formed Natural Cloud (see RH # 180) which manufactures and markets a functional beverage ingredient made from citrus peel. The companies intend to continue operating the Natural Cloud venture as a separate entity. --Cargill press release 19/8/00

Another 'sideways' expansion is the addition of lysine production to its corn wet milling behemoth in Blair, Nebraska, on the Missouri River. Cargill has formed a joint venture, Midwest Lysine, with Degussa-Huls Corp of Germany to manufactures Biolys 60, Degussa-Huls' premium lysine amino acid for use in livestock feeds. The production facility is adjacent to Cargill's corn wet milling complex, which provides the dextrose that Midwest Lysine relies on as the primary ingredient for its lysine-production process. --Cargill press release 20/8/00

This is Cargill's first involvement in lysine production, though as a feed manufacturer and trader, Cargill has long dealt in lysine on a considerable scale. Nevertheless, Cargill managed to escape from the charges of price-fixing that eventually brought Archer Daniels Midland $100 million in fines and substantial prison sentences for the senior executives involved (Remember Mark Whitacre, ADM executive and apparent embezzler turned FBI mole? He's one of the ones in jail.) Other companies were also convicted, but Cargill, while named initially as part of the price-fixing scheme, soon dropped -- or was dropped -- from the case.

Venturing into a new segment of the food business, Cargill has formed a joint venture with The Hudson Companies of Alabama to acquire Fontina Foods, Inc., which provides a full line of refrigerated, fresh processed stabilized herbs and spices, premium refrigerated herb & spice blends, pesto sauces, proprietary sauces, flavor systems and marinades to the food service industry. "This investment fits perfectly into Cargill's goal to be the premier provider of customer solutions for the agri-food chain," said a Cargill spokesman. --Cargill press release 23/8/00, see

The best indicator of Cargill's understanding of where global food is heading, however, is found on a dedicated Cargill website,, which opens with the following: "Dynamic changes are redefining the food industry. Consumers are paying more attention to what's inside the foods they eat. And in many countries, regulators are calling for more information on food labels. To succeed in this evolving marketplace, you need a supplier who understands the new issues you face. A supplier who can help you satisfy the demands of both consumers and regulators"

The various pages of the website then explain the InnovaSure (Innovation + Assurance) IP system Cargill has built around its subsidiary, Illinois Cereal Mills.

"We go to excruciating lengths to ensure that the identity of our corn products remains intact from the time the seed is selected, until InnovaSure products arrive at your door.. . We have been perfecting our fully traceable, fully documented systems for many years; leveraging world-class technology to bring you identity preserved products that help you to succeed with your customers."

"Traceability is the cornerstone of our identity preservation system. We have the most stringent IP protocols and traceability systems in the industry. . . All documents, samples and test results are retained for a minimum of two years and are available for third-party inspection."

"Only non-genetically enhanced (conventionally bred) varieties are included on the approved InnovaSure hybrid list. . . InnovaSure seed suppliers must be able to ensure the integrity of their products is maintained and that they have complete traceability throughout their system."

"We partner with more than 400 professional growers. . . Growers document that fields designated for IP corn have been free of genetically enhanced corn for at least one year. Growers identify the corn hybrids planted by their neighbours. They maintain proper buffer zones and submit a map showing what hybrids are planted in surrounding fields."

the kite

At the end, Cargill identifies itself as "a global supplier of branded and non-branded food ingredient products to food processors, the food service industry and retail food customers."

Clearly Cargill has never believed the biotech industry's line about how GE crops and foods cannot be segregated. Add to this the item about SDI, and it is obvious that the biotech industry is simply a pathological liar. Cargill is no corporate fool. GE foods can be tested and segregated. Cargill's activities described thus far may not attract public resistance but elsewhere life is more challenging. In Venezuela, residents of a coastal region are strongly resisting the expansion of Cargill's salt-making activities into the wetlands of Lake Maricaibo's estuary. (see our January/00 issue, RH #176). At the same time, a quieter struggle is underway over the future of the one-time wetlands of south San Francisco Bay.

That's why, as I planned to attend a conference in San Francisco in September, I leapt at the opportunity to learn about the situation first hand. In fact, flying into San Francisco airport as the plane made a wide sweep south past the Bay and then north into the airport, I could get a bird's eye view of Cargill's 29,000 acres (11,600 ha) of salt flats (already within the designated boundaries of the Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Reserve), that occupy almost all of the south Bay.

brewster flies a kite

Later, I was taken on a guided "bird-watching" tour (not by Cargill) of the mammoth salt ponds, which were all wetlands gradually dyked and turned into salt concentration and crystalization ponds from the middle of the last century. The ponds are currently producing about one million tons of salt a year with a value of about $20 per ton for the raw salt. And if you wonder why you do not see Cargill salt in the supermarket, it is because it goes through Morton's packaging plant which is right next to Cargill's refinery on the edge of the ponds and appears as Morton Salt, which Cargill does not own.

A variety of individuals and organizations are now trying to get at least the 17,000 acres of these salt ponds which Cargill uses but does not own, restored as wetlands. (Cargill owns the other 12,000 acres.) Their bargaining chip is the fact that San Francisco Airport would like to build a new runway, and the only way it can do so is by filling in about 400 acres of the Bay to the north of Cargill's salt ponds, which go as far north as Redwood City. To get permission to fill the Bay, the airport has to mitigate the environmental consequences of its proposal. The mitigation proposal prepared by Ralph Nobles on behalf of citizens' groups calls for restoration of all 29,000 acres of Cargill's salt ponds to their natural wetlands condition. As the Bay area environmentalists see it, it is simply outrageous that a private company should control such a large area of what once were public lands and marshes.

I got involved in all this, by the way, because my book, Invisible Giant, Cargill and its Transnational Strategies, is mandatory reading for those involved in this kind of struggle, whether in the Bay area, Venezuela, India . . . or, for that matter, Alberta.

I recently had a call from Alliance, Alberta, about 150km SE of Edmonton, in the area where Taiwan Sugar would like to build a mega hog production facility, having been turned down in southern Alberta already. The caller reminded me that I had written about the close relations between Cargill and Taiwan Sugar in Invisible Giant. I had forgotten. In fact, Cargill had, and probably still has, although the information is not readily available, a joint venture in Taiwan with Taiwan Sugar to produce pork. So now one wonders about Cargill's role in the desire of Taiwan Sugar to build mega hog facilities in Alberta, where Cargill is already a major beef packer and feedlot and feed mill operator.

Behind these struggles, whether in Venezuela, California or Alberta, is the radical difference in outlook between the corporate industrializers and developers, who view all of Creation as nothing more than resources to be exploited for profit, and the rest of the people who respect and wish to nurture and live with the world about them.

Unfortunately, Invisible Giant is not available through bookstores, but we do have copies at $15 postpaid.

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