New Cargill CEO on role in global food chain: ‘Food can’t be weaponized’

With a Texan drawl and his V-neck sweater zipped up, Cargill’s new CEO might seem uncomfortable with the plaster of white snow and hoar-frosted trees behind him outside the windows of the pyramid-shaped executive offices on the Wayzata campus of the global grain giant.

But Brian Sikes, former chief operating officer and head of protein who was promoted as the family-owned company’s 10th CEO earlier this year, has ascended within the hermetic world of Cargill, which, he said, feels mostly the same everywhere — whether in Brazil, Vietnam or the western suburbs of Minneapolis.

“They were moved a lot,” Sikes said of his four adult children. “I have a belief that Cargill people are built differently.”

The shoes Sikes fills are large. Sikes’ predecessor, David MacLennan, led the company through a tumultuous era, from 2013 to the end of 2022, navigating trade wars during the divisive Trump presidency, the coronavirus pandemic, and increasing calls for equity and sustainability. Cargill is a famously private company that not only — as its executives often repeat — feeds the world but also participates in an agricultural supply line that is collectively one of the greatest producers of carbon emissions in the world.

Those challenges largely still sit before Sikes, but the mild-mannered CEO appears calm and eager to chart the next path of a company spawned from a grain elevator in northeast Iowa in the final year of the Civil War.

“When you lead a big, global company, you know big is bad, which is unfair. But that’s the reality we live in,” Sikes said. “It’s what we sign up for. … It’s not going to be the best part of the job. I don’t know where you can make a bigger impact than Cargill.”

But big also means joining hands with the world’s leadership to ship grain in and out of rogue nations or procure other raw foodstuffs, from salmon in the North Sea to cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast.

No challenge has been as vexing lately as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe’s breadbasket.

He says Cargill — which has drawn criticism for remaining in Russia — has not spoken directly with President Vladimir Putin. But he has relied on intermediaries, such as the Chinese ambassador, to channel his message to sympathetic voices inside Russia.

“Food can’t be weaponized,” Sikes said.

He believes Russia is listening. In July, via negotiations led by Turkey and the United Nations, Russia and Ukraine agreed to establish the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which opened up relatively safe shipping lanes out of vital Ukrainian ports. The first container ship left Odessa on Aug. 1.

“We didn’t broadcast this, but the first barge that went out with grain through the World Food Program was ours,” said Sikes, “and that wasn’t an accident.”

With one foot in geopolitics and the other in international business savvy, Cargill retains a formidable position on the world stage. The grain shipments are key staples for nations — particularly East African nations — to forestall an emerging food crisis that Cargill is uniquely positioned to identify. In interviews last month with the Star Tribune, company executives repeated the refrain that 800 million people go to bed hungry at night.

Yet, Cargill is not a charity. The company also posted record revenue in 2022 — $165 billion, enough to make the grain trader one of the nation’s 15 largest companies if it were publicly traded. Steering the company requires the deft touch of a schooled merchant.

Cargill officials believe Sikes can deliver.

Sikes is a company man who began supervising a slaughterhouse in Plainview, Texas, after graduating from Texas Tech University. He and his wife met as volunteers in a soup kitchen in Austin. Throughout his career, he moved the family 14 times. Eventually, Sikes oversaw the protein division and was elevated in 2021 to the chief operating officer, largely seen by company observers as the heir-in-waiting.

Sikes flashes a boy-next-door Ron Howard smile as he proudly notes Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ alma mater (Texas Tech) or contentious industry debates, such as the increasing attention to the domestic concentration of meat processing. Sikes says he understands the critique, that Cargill — along with JBS, Tyson and National Beef— owns as much as 85% of the beef production in the U.S. Consumers lament rising prices at grocery stores, and ranchers increasingly face extinction.

But Sikes says consolidation has been the norm for a quarter-century.

“If you ask me is the answer making four [beef processors] into 14, I think we will go backwards in innovation,” he said. The CEO says Cargill lost money in 2015, and predicts those days, at least in the beef sector, may return given industry cycles, or a fluctuation in the size of the nation’s cattle herd given input costs and market conditions. Still, he remains stoutly opposed to breaking up large meatpackers. “We have the safest, most affordable food in the world.”

Sikes said employees’ sacrifice during the pandemic has motivated him to spotlight employees during his upcoming tenure. He spoke of the plant workers in Vietnam who slept on cots for three months to avoid infection from COVID or the Dodge City, Kan., plant supervisor who waited for weeks to see his new baby, rather than return home during the pandemic’s early days.

An endangerment to worker safety is one of two thresholds for what would lead Cargill to leave Russia.

“If we can’t keep people safe, we’ll stop that day,” said Sikes. (He noted the other exit trigger would be if the company’s facilities were nationalized by Russian authorities.)

At 158 years old, Cargill boasts 155,000 employees across 70 countries. The company employs traders in Geneva, staffs docks in the Black Sea and farms tilapia in Thailand. But its roots are in the American Midwest.

In 2021, a year after riots in Minneapolis commercial thoroughfares following the murder of George Floyd by police, the company joined a number of corporations pledging racial equity campaigns or initiatives. For Cargill, this movement culminated in a partnership with Target to source more cotton from Black farmers to be used in a clothing line.

The move drew the ire last April from Republicans on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, who accused the company of racism against white farmers. Then-CEO MacLennan did not back down, prompting one congressman to say he hoped Cargill would be sued over the program.

Eight months later, those Republicans now sit in the House majority. But Sikes said the Black Farmer Equity Initiative retains his support.

“Black farmers represent about 2 percent of farmers. That’s clearly underrepresented,” he said. “I think [the program] was misunderstood.”

It’s not the only time the company has faced challenges as it tries to toe the line for racial equity and environmental sustainability. Case in point: the fight over deforestation in Brazil. Last year, residents of an island in northern Brazil sued Cargill in federal court over its planned $150 million expansion of a soybean processing facility on a river port near the coast.

Cargill touts a 2006 moratorium on farming soy in the Amazon, canceling supply chains that had led to logging and deforestation in the vulnerable rain forest. Since then, however, Cargill and others have sourced soy in Brazil’s Cerrado, a savanna region rich in native vegetation.

In October, Brazilians elected as new president, leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is more critical of agricultural encroachment on the country’s vulnerable ecosystems.

The following month at COP27, the U.N.-backed climate summit, the company pushed up a goal to eliminate deforestation from its critical supply chain by 2025. Up until last November’s commitment, Cargill had said it aimed to end deforestation by 2030.

These pledges are often difficult to hit on time. For example, Cargill and the broader food industry failed to meet its goal of ending deforestation in its supply chain by 2020.

Critics say the company is moving the goal posts while executives say they are trying to respect local sentiments.

“We link people together,” Sikes said. “And we do it around the world.”