Cargill should pull out of Russia — now | Opinion

A Cargill meat processing plant in Springdale Arkansas. The privately-owned company has 160,000 employees in 70 countries. Photo by Spencer Tirey/Getty Images.

Even as hundreds of companies around the world have suspended operations in Russia in recent days, Minnesota corporate giant Cargill has continued to do business there.

 “Cargill is one of the biggest foreign investors in agro-processing segment of Russian economy with the amount overrunning $1100 million ($1.1 billion) USD,” its website says.

Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota, where Cargill is headquartered, issued an executive order cutting the state’s ties to Russia and encouraging companies to do the same.

The company at first declined to raise even a rhetorical objections to the invasion, referring in its one public statement only to “challenges” faced by employees and customers “in the region” — refusing to criticize or even acknowledge the invasion of a sovereign neighboring country.

As pressure mounted on the companya, Cargill announced on March 11 that it is “scaling back” its business in Russia and stopping investment there.

It’s a step in the right direction, but Cargill needs to pull out entirely. 

Cargill has refused to join other major global companies, which have responded decisively to Russian aggression, including McDonald’s, Coke and Pepsi — even after a missile hit one of Cargill’s ships in Ukrainian waters. Fortunately, the crew were not injured, and the ship was able to make it to safety.

Cargill responded by closing a significant part of its Ukrainian operations. That is understandable, given the security risks. Exiting Ukraine while continuing much larger operations in Russia, however, is perverse.

As long as it operates in Russia, Cargill has effectively chosen to side with Vladimir Putin. Cargill and its 2,400 Russian employees send tax revenue, supporting the Russian war machine, bolster the Russian economy with their presence, and promote Russia’s global image through their willingness to continue to do business with them. 

Cargill, America’s largest privately held company — with $4.93 billion in annual profit last year — undermines America and the West’s symbolic support by their continued presence in Russia.

Sadly, Cargill’s ongoing support for Putin’s government is consistent with both its record in Russia and the former Soviet Union – and its support for authoritarian regimes around the world. When the United States imposed a grain embargo on the Soviet Union in response to its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, Cargill attempted to undermine it.

As domestic policy chief — and later US Ambassador to the European Union — Stuart Eizenstat writes in his biography of Jimmy Carter, Cargill’s attitude at the time was “repugnant in showing absolutely no interest in the security challenges our country faced from the Soviet invasion.”

In Brazil, Cargill responded to authoritarian President Jair Bolsonaro’s gutting of environmental protections and encouragement of land grabs from Indigenous peoples by sabotaging its competitors’ efforts to establish private sector standards for forest conservation. Six adults in Mali sued the company, alleging Cargill knowingly bought cocoa beans from farms where the plaintiffs had been trafficked for slave labor as children.

Former U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman wrote in a 2019 report on Cargill that “In my 40-year long career in Congress, I took on a range of companies that engaged in abusive practices. I have seen firsthand the harmful impact of businesses that do not bring their ethics with them to work. But Cargill stands out.”

Cargill’s inability to ethically or patriotically navigate the Russian invasion of Ukraine speaks to a need for a larger shift in the company, and in agribusiness more broadly. Its owners, the Cargill and MacMillan families, need to step in and chart a new course by setting standards that provide its customers the food they want, without the stink of invasion, ecocide, or displacement of Indigenous peoples.  

Cargill should start by suspending operations in Russia now and continue by figuring out how to be profitable in a way that Cargill owners, employees, and Minnesotans can finally be proud of.  

Editor’s note: Cargill recently released a statement about the company’s operations in Russia and Ukraine: 

“The people of Ukraine are living an unthinkable and horrifying reality. Since their country was invaded, many have lost their lives, their families, their homes — everything. Through our 157 years, two things are a constant: We always put people first, prioritizing our employees’ safety, and we do everything we can to nourish the world. This is how we feed families and sustain life around the globe.

Our purpose and principles have been with us since our beginning and guide us every day. We have a long history in Russia, but now is a time like no other. As such, we are scaling back our business activities there and have stopped investment.

We will continue to operate our essential food and feed facilities in Russia. Food is a basic human right and should never be used as a weapon. This region plays a significant role in our global food system and is a critical source for key ingredients in basic staples like bread, infant formula and cereal.

We are also increasing support of our Ukrainian colleagues and humanitarian efforts in the region through the World Food Programme, World Central Kitchen, Red Cross, Save the Children, European Food Banks Federation and CARE. Profits from our operations will be directed to these humanitarian efforts.”

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Kevin Whelan
Kevin Whelan

Kevin Whelan is the Minnesota Coordinator for the global environmental organization Mighty Earth.

Yehor Hrynyk

Yehor Hrynyk is a conservation officer with Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group.