Cargill Inc. pledged recently to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its North American beef supply chain by 30% in the next decade.
The Minnesota-based agribusiness, one of the world’s largest beef producers, said it will meet this reduction on a per-pound-of-product basis by 2030 through better grazing practices, improved animal feed and reducing food waste throughout the entire chain.
A reduction in per-pound emissions is not the same as reducing overall emissions, but rather the amount emitted to produce each burger or steak, for example.
Through this initiative, which it dubbed “BeefUp Sustainability,” the company also will look to other executives and entrepreneurs in other industries for ideas that fall outside Cargill’s old way of solving problems, said Jon Nash, the company’s head of North American protein.
“We are trying to make a concerted effort to change the way we think and really challenge some of the things we have historically done,” Nash said. “We are pushing hard to disrupt ourselves.”
Livestock production accounts for 14.5% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions globally, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Within that, cattle raised for beef and milk contributes the majority of livestock-related emissions.
Beef production accounts for a smaller percentage of U.S. emissions as Americans contribute more proportionally through electrical and automotive use than many other countries.
Cargill is the third-largest U.S. beef processor, selling $12.3 billion worth of the red meat in 2017, according to Cattle Buyers Weekly. The company will base the greenhouse gas reduction percentage on its 2017 North American beef baseline of approximately 60 million metric tons.
“Today, beef production accounts for 2% of total GHG emissions in the U.S.,” Nash said. “Through our BeefUp Sustainability program, Cargill is pledging to do our part to improve this industry baseline by reducing the emissions in our supply chain by 30% per pound of product.”
Methane, a chemical compound created in the gut of cattle and released through belching, is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in beef production, according to the FAO. The organization suggests methane production could be reduced by feeding cattle more tailored mixes that could improve digestion. Cargill, which also happens to be a large producer of animal feed, said this is one of the key areas it will focus on to reach its goal.
Cargill said it will also work with ranchers, who have the option to participate, to alter grazing practices in a way that improves the land’s capacity to hold in more carbon. They will also try and improve the sustainability of row crops, key ingredients in animal feed, by using more cover crops between plantings.
Cargill also said it will work with its customers — like fast food restaurants and grocery retailers — to reduce food waste. Nash said that could be through better packaging to prevent spoilage or reducing portion sizes so people throw away less beef.
As one of the world’s largest players in the production, transportation and sale of agricultural goods, Cargill is increasingly thrust to the fore of environmental issues related to food.
“We have a breadth and depth that few others have,” Nash said. “There’s no one that should be able to do this better than us.”
The company is expanding its partnership with the Nature Conservancy to advance the initiative.
“We are committed to achieving a productive food system that improves water quality and wildlife habitat while reducing GHGs,” Sasha Gennet, director for the Nature Conservancy’s North American grazing strategy, said in a statement. “Leveraging Cargill’s network allows us to drive change at a meaningful scale.”
Last year, Cargill’s leadership team took a trip to Silicon Valley to meet with well-known venture capitalists and executives from large technology firms. That laid the foundation for Cargill’s sponsorship of a manure innovation challenge through the Yield Lab, an organization trying to “enable entrepreneurs to sustainably revolutionize agrifood systems.”
The manure challenge, also announced recently, seeks startups with ideas on how to better capture the value from manure-based nutrients, fiber and energy in a way that improves farm profitability.