On Forests, Farms, and Our Food: A Conversation with Shasta Kaul of Mighty Earth!

By Stephen Grigelevich for Brain Arts Org

April 11, 2020


Lately, I've been watching birds in the sky again. I’m not alone, I think, in appreciating the innocence I assume when gazing upward. From down here, the sky is a vast, exquisite realm of reality, and the birds are the most vivid pulses of the universe…

So, admittedly, I was already soaking in this sweet poetry of birdsong, and feeling particularly deferential to Mother Nature's wise ways, when I received an invitation from a dear environmentalist friend of mine to attend the online seminar “Forests, Farms, and Our Food: Virtual Panel on Sustainable Agriculture.” Now, environmentalism is a well-rooted but dormant presence in my life, so I felt grateful to join others in discussing the Earth from the perspective of food systems and global health. Part educational platform, part rallying cry, the panel made a clear case for the symbiosis among global ecosystems, Indigenous Peoples’ land rights, and global food production. Woven throughout the webinar was a call to action by panel speaker Shasta Kaul of Mighty Earth, a global NGO that intervenes at the agricultural and food systems level to combat climate change.

This year, she explained, Mighty is calling on Stop & Shop to cut ties with Cargill, the United States’ largest privately-held company, and supplier of Stop & Shop’s store brand meat. Days after the seminar, I reached out to Shasta and we got to talking about her field organizing efforts, why Cargill is so rotten, and what you can do to encourage Stop & Shop to cut ties with Cargill.

To learn more about Mighty Earth’s campaigns, check ‘em out:

Facebook - @StandMighty

Instagram - @standmighty

Twitter - @StandMighty & @autopilotshasta

Or on the world wide web

[Interview conducted via phone on Thursday April 9, 2020, and edited for length]

Shasta, what does it mean to be an organizer with Mighty Earth?

We focus on the big issues, like protecting oceans, and our campaigns and teams have played a key role in pushing companies to adopt policies [consistent with reducing human impact on the climate]. My role is a field organizer, and a lot of the work I do involves developing support in communities. For example, we try and get support from local businesses, and then use that support as leverage when talking with our targets. So we have been talking to Ahold Delhaize, the Dutch parent company of Stop & Shop, and addressing their partnership with Cargill, which provides the meat that is then rebranded and sold as ‘Stop & Shop’ store brand meat.

Right, and in the Tuesday night panel, you highlighted Stop & Shop's partnership with Cargill as deeply troubling. How did you come to identify this issue, and why is it important to support this effort?

Generally, Mighty releases a report titled ‘the Worst Company in the World.’ Now, there are many metrics by which you would measure what that means, but Cargil meets many of those criteria. They have flouted many ethical codes, they have terrible deforestation practices, including exploiting loopholes in Brazil. Terrible human rights abuses towards workers, as well. So, we are trying to persuade them to adhere to sustainability commitments that they made in 2014 and renewed in 2016. We can't appeal to shareholders, or to some other part in the supply chain, because Cargill does everything from raising livestock to processing feed, so talking to their suppliers is a key part in our plan. Another thing is that, the reason Cargill gets away with a lot of their practices, is that people don't recognize the name Cargill, because their meat is resold under Stop & Shop’s name. So this is important, and as we discuss public health, [we must] discuss issues like deforestation, in order to address climate change.

Mighty Earth's current action has consumers call to Stop & Shop headquarters and request that they cut ties with Cargill. Would Mighty ever take steps to lead a boycott of Stop & Shop, and if so, what would trigger that action? If not, then why not?

This is Mighty Earth's official view on campaign strategy: "We are not calling for a boycott, rather that Stop & Shop live up to customer expectations for providing food that is good for their families- and that includes protecting our climate and cutting ties with suppliers that are not acting sustainably. Supermarkets like Stop & Shop depend on ongoing customer trust. Ignoring customer concerns about sustainability and continuing to source from irresponsible suppliers puts the company’s reputation as a trustworthy place to buy food at risk, which can ultimately have very real consequences to their business."

How does the coronavirus pandemic affect Mighty Earth's work?

Right. this is a challenging thing to target, especially in a grocery store during a pandemic. In Mighty’s letter campaign, we have thanked [Stop & Shop] for their leadership. They are opening up a little earlier in the morning, for instance. That said, we want from them more leadership going forward on the climate front. Like I said, climate is ultimately a public issue. The meat industry is the leading contributor of deforestation and water pollution. So when we call them out, we are trying to rebalance this power that a few companies have, and trying to address issues that they are responsible for.

What role can we all play? Are writing letters and making calls the main forms, or are there other important steps people can take to defend our planet?

I think it is worthwhile to reduce consumption of meat, or buy local, for instance. But we also recognize that eating meat is a part of the US diet, and that the meat industry is a crucial part of our economy. Letters to the editor, making phone calls to Stop & Shop headquarters, going to events like our panel, is the most effective way of getting these companies’ attention. Because they do care. So I do think organizing efforts are super important. I think people should feel free to engage and determine if an organization is doing the work that they believe in. [When asked for an example] 350 has so many great direct actions that they organize on a regular basis.

What was the impetus for the panel, and how was it organized? What was the purpose?

Initially, we were going to do a rally, and we had pained signs, and we were all ready to go. But things changed in the last coupe of weeks. But, we wanted to do something that was useful. I think the world and our supply chain is so complicated, and I always appreciate when there are experts to tell me what's going on. So that was the impetus for hosting the panel. And we wanted to make sure that it was related to sustainable agriculture, but also tie it into public health. We felt like [the online panel] was a comprehensive overview of what we were trying to accomplish.

Final words?

I just want to reiterate that companies and institutions are stepping up in keeping us supplied with leadership during the pandemic, and Stop & shop has the opportunity to cut contacts with Cargill and give other companies the opportunity to do the same.