With a $2 billion dollar settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency announced last week, the Director of Sustainability at Mosaic talks food, communities and responsibilities — all free of buzzwords and corporate-speak.
Neil Beckingham is a charming yet forthright man. Despite being an executive with one of the largest companies in Hillsborough County, if not in Florida, he appears to avoid corporate-speak, opting for the transparency he seeks for his company. Beckingham is the Director of Sustainability at Mosaic.
In that position Beckingham has a broad responsibility.
Last month, National Public Radio ran a report on what “sustainable” really means. It received a variety of answers from numerous experts. In Beckingham’s case, at least, there is a reason for that. Sustainability for a company like Mosaic encompasses more than a mere line or two on a job description.
Mosaic is the world’s largest producer of finished phosphate products — phosphate used in fertilizer that is, in turn, used to grow the foods that feed the world. It was formed in a 2004 merger between Cargill and IMC Global. In more recent years, Cargill has sold off its interest, leaving Mosaic a publicly held company with nearly 9,000 employees, and at least 1,300 are in Hillsborough County. The company operates four manufacturing facilities, of which the plant along U.S. 41 in Riverview is one, and four mining sites in both the Tampa Bay area and in central Florida.
The Riverview plant, with approximately 300 employees, has been operating for nearly a century. The large hill, known as a gyp stack, built right on the shore of Tampa Bay, was inherited, first by Cargill and then by Mosaic. It, like the plant itself, requires a constant investment and continual maintenance.
Although Mosaic is a presence around the world, much of what is produced at the Riverview plant eventually sails for New Orleans and ultimately up the Mississippi River to serve America’s farming heartland.
As a mining and manufacturing company, there are difficult realities that the company constantly grapples with. All along U.S. 41 are smallish signs describing a site as a “Mosaic Restoration Area.” Cargill, the former owner of the plant and the mines, was notoriously quiet about such investments. Mosaic may have inherited a bit of that trait as well but things are changing. Today Mosaic is working to actively become involved in the communities in which it operates.
“There are realities in production and manufacturing,” Beckingham said. “We have to manage those to keep the impact to a minimum, to minimize risk.”
Mining is an inherently difficult business. It can be messy and sometimes temporarily, at least, destructive. Yet without Mosaic, parts of the world would simply starve, as food production would fall precipitously without the use of fertilizer. Mosaic is the largest producer of phosphate fertilizer in the world.
“Fertilizer is crucial to growing food,” Beckingham said. “Fertilizer is a global resource.”
And with that, there will always be problems. Years ago, the Environmental Protection Agency began an investigation into a leaking gypsum stack at the long-closed Piney Point fertilizer plant in Manatee County. That investigation spread naturally to Mosaic, the largest player in the market.
Last week, the EPA announced a $2 billion settlement with Mosaic to ensure any environmental damage was cleaned up and contained and certain practices were changed. It was an eight-year investigation; that there was so little urgency suggested, as the company pointed out, that any damage was not immediately or permanently harmful to the population or environment in the vicinity of the stack.
At Piney Point, there was no one left to blame; there was no one left to pay. At Mosaic, the company had the strength to commit $2 billion dollars to the environment in which it works.
Both the cleanup — the steps necessary to ensure those problems are resolved — and achieving high levels of efficiency are in the company’s best interest. It is a for-profit, publicly held corporation. It operates in communities and requires the faith and support of those communities. Its very existence depends upon being an environmental steward and being a good neighbor in all respects.
To survive, they cannot waste. They must be efficient. They must be a good neighbor.
“We record all of the information about sustainability across the whole company,” Beckingham continued. “We gather data on everything, from water to greenhouse gases to output. We take all of that information and evaluate from a company level and reduce it to a site level. We want to hunt down where we have strengths and where we have challenges. Who is using the most water? Why?”
For Mosaic, waste, and the damage that could occur with it, challenges the sustainability of both the company and the world’s food supply.
“I generally identify areas where we have challenges,” Beckingham said. “We’ll look at that area and go in and work with the site to ensure our goals of sustainability. Sustainability is environmental, social and economic — and our work can focus on any or all of those.”
And, according to Beckingham, the social responsibility is a major one.
“We are about operating transparently and responsibly,” he said. “There are social aspects and they are very important. We are not going to get very far if we ignore that. We have to be attentive to the communities in which we operate. We aim to be the best at what we do.”
Hand in hand goes the efficient use of non-renewable resources. Few of the jobs at a Mosaic plant are minimum-wage jobs. People depend upon the company not only for food, for knowing that a plant is operating safely, but also for their livelihoods.
“You go back 10 years ago, and we thought that about 40 years of phosphate remained here,” Beckingham said. “Ten years later, 40 years still remains. Technology has changed that. We are more efficient. That, to me, is a really good story. It is a story of maximizing a resource. Ten years from now I suspect that 40 years will still remain. It is a good news story.”
The reality is that without companies like Mosaic, the world as we know it would fundamentally change. There would simply not be enough food to feed the population. And for the steak lovers among us, it’s not just vegetables — livestock relies on much of the same farmed produce that we do. As the director of sustainability, Beckingham has his own views on feeding a growing planet.
“When you look at the numbers, we have enough to feed the present population on the planet,” he said. “It’s really about distribution and also food waste is a big piece of it. There is a big trend of people moving from rural to urban, and you look at population growth in the developing world.
“I think there are some huge bright spots. Africa has tremendous potential if you look at agriculture there. We can sustainably help to give [them] very high yields. There will be increasing technology and capabilities there.”
Beckingham paused for a moment.
“So yes, I’m optimistic,” he said about the future.
He’s also realistic. The challenges remain and are daunting. Part of the Mosaic corporate mission is to help double food production by 2050, all while working to help reduce agriculture’s impact on the environment.
“Technology is a big part of agriculture,” he said. “We are always looking at how to develop a better product. A cleaner product.”
As the recent NPR story suggested, “sustainability” has become a buzzword. For Neil Beckingham, Mosaic’s Director of Sustainability, and a man refreshingly free of “corporate-speak,” it is a broad responsibility. From ensuring that the undertakings of a large company are operating as efficiently and as safely as possible (he, along with the rest of the staff, lives here, too), to ensuring the communities in which they operate understand what they are doing and how, if needed, they will stand by them both ongoing and once finished. Mines are refilled after the phosphates are removed. Gyp stacks become grassy hills — perhaps not places that could be developed but not eyesores, either.
In the meantime, wetlands, scrublands and woodlands, even those away from operations, are restored in remediation efforts. What they take, they try to give back in as many ways as possible.
The company is actively involved in everything from area chambers of commerce to providing backpacks for schoolchildren in need. They operate an education center on Tampa Bay in which a thousand or more Hillsborough young people from area schools visit to learn about coastal ecosystems. They want young people to learn how things should be in a better world.
But in the end, it is all about food. Simply put, most people like to eat. Mosaic is standing behind their mission; they haven’t disappeared into the winds as some smaller operators have. They have their checkbook out. Sustainability in this case could be summed up simply as doing the right thing — which is something they must do if they hope to survive. Neil Beckingham is working to ensure it on all of many fronts. It is why he was hired.
“I think we are making fantastic progress with environmental and social programs,” he said.
All while working to help feed the world. It’s not perfect. It probably never will be. But people like Neil Beckingham are working to make it ever closer to that.
For more information about sustainability at Mosaic, visit tinyurl.com/observer-mosaic.
For more information about Mosaic, visit www.mosaicco.com.