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Protecting forests: It's the right thing to do, and we can do it

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On a recent trip to Brazil, we flew over the Amazon. Looking out the plane window, I saw an ocean of trees blanketing the ground below. But I also saw large patches of land that had been deforested to make way for farmland. And as much as I like to see farmland, since our business depends on sourcing crops from farmers worldwide, I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel a real sense of loss at that sight.

Protecting forests is clearly the right thing to do. Primary forests are irreplaceable. They contain troves of biodiversity, many millions of people depend on them directly for their livelihoods, and they are an important buffer against climate change. As a leader in agriculture, food and nutrition, Cargill knows preserving forests is imperative.

Although estimates vary, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found that deforestation accounts for roughly 12 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. As a company, Cargill wants to do the right thing for the planet, and we have to do what we can to end deforestation, beginning with our own supply chains.

In 2014, at the U.N., we endorsed the New York Declaration on Forests, pledging to do our part in halving deforestation by 2020 and eliminating it by 2030. With that target in mind, we knew where we were going. But to know how to get somewhere, you first have to know where you are. That meant we had to establish a baseline.

Over the last year, we partnered with World Resources Institute (WRI) and Global Forest Watch (GFW), whose expertise in protecting forests is widely recognized, to develop that baseline across our global operations and see where our business stands on forest loss. Using satellite photography, extensive mapping and on-the-ground field visits, we looked at more than 1,900 sourcing locations, both Cargill-owned and third-party operated, and 166 million hectares of land surrounding them. To give you an idea of the scope of the project: That's an area about the same size as the American states of Texas, California and Montana combined. What we found is that on the 119 million hectares of forested land in the area we looked at, there was about 1.46 percent tree cover loss in 2014.

That analysis gave us a basic view of what's happening on the ground. What we don't know yet is how much of that tree cover loss was directly related to our own activity. That's because we are not the only company that operates in those areas, and a number of our own suppliers also sell to other buyers. The next step is to determine what exactly caused the deforestation, and what we can do to develop solutions, either by ourselves or working with others.

You can read more about this in Cargill's new Report on Forests, along with the progress we have made protecting forests in global supply chains like palm oil and cocoa, soy in Brazil and Paraguay, and cotton and maize in Zambia. We also just launched a policy that will ensure the companies we buy wood-fiber-based packaging from make their products responsibly.

Of course, we can't do all these things by ourselves, if only because we don't grow most of the crops we trade and ship - we buy them from farmers and other companies. That's why, in our actions to stop deforestation, we have always placed a special emphasis on collaboration. To get where we're going, we are working with governments, NGOs, business partners and - most importantly - farmers around the world.

Take Paraguay, for instance. The country is a significant exporter of soy beans, which account for half of its agricultural output and 12 percent of its GDP. We already had years of experience in making the soy trade more sustainable. Ten years ago, we were one of the founders of the Soy Moratorium in Brazil, which contributed to an 80 percent drop in the rate of deforestation in the Amazon and was recently extended indefinitely.

Building on the lessons we learned there, we set out to equip Paraguayan farmers with sustainable approaches. We also rolled out a certification program based on three pillars: increasing the use of best agricultural practices, protecting worker welfare and managing greenhouse gases.

Similar collaborations with farmers have been going on in other countries. And although every place and every supply chain is different, we've managed to reach more than 148,000 farmers and suppliers around the world, including 15,000 small- and large-scale soy farmers in Brazil, 21,000 palm oil small farmers in Indonesia, 1,000 soy farmers in Paraguay and 90,000 cocoa farmers and cooperatives in West Africa.

All of this goes to show that stopping deforestation has to happen on multiple fronts. It's not just shoes on the ground or satellites 100 miles up in space, it's both - and more. Making our 2030 target will take significant amounts of research, cooperation, education, and yes, money. But we are fully committed to making that investment, and we are confident we can get there.

To be sure, there is still a lot of work to be done. But with effort, dedication and a willingness to listen to sometimes unlikely allies, we as an industry can protect forests, do business and ensure farmers' livelihoods at the same time.

We can nourish the world and protect the planet, and I'm confident that we will do it. Our children and grandchildren require and expect no less.

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