Four of the five largest industrial agricultural facilities that have released the most carbon emissions in the past decade belong to Archer Daniels Midland, one of the world’s largest food processing and commodity trading companies.

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DECATUR, Illinois — Three letters are everywhere in this mid-sized Midwestern city — "ADM" adorns buildings, parking lot signs, massive freight cars. The towers of Archer Daniels Midland’s North American headquarters belch steam, permeating much of the city with an odor.

“Occasionally, someone has a very strong distaste for the aroma that comes from our factories,” said Mayor Julie Moore Wolf. “If you have a day here or there where it smells off, that's what comes with the territory.”

The facility known for its smell is notable for another reason. Among agricultural facilities with emissions tracked by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, this ADM plant has emitted the most carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — by far — over the past decade, according to an Investigate Midwest analysis of agency data. 

There is no recent evidence of negative health effects from the plant’s emissions. But greenhouse gas emissions contribute to climate change, and scientists say curbing them is essential to avert ecological disaster.

To be sure, agriculture does not emit greenhouse gases on the same scale as other industries, such as oil and gas. But, in recent years, the agricultural industry — including ADM, an international food processing giant — has focused more attention on its carbon footprint. 

The ADM City Center facility is located at 350 N Water St, Decatur, Illinois, on Thursday, April 15, 2021. ADM's presence is visible throughout the town. Photo by Ignacio Calderon/Investigate Midwest

As a wet corn mill, the Decatur facility uses loads of energy to grind corn into products that are used to make everyday items, such as cereal and soft drinks. While the government has paid ADM hundreds of millions to capture its carbon output, it's failed to meet promised goals.

In a statement, an ADM spokesperson said the company is devoted to reducing its carbon footprint.

“We know that sustainability is a continuous journey, and we are committed to making continuous progress to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions,” the spokesperson said. 

Between 2011 and 2019, the latest year data is available, ADM’s Decatur facility consistently emitted more than 4 million tons of greenhouse gas a year. That was more than any other agriculture facility in the U.S. That’s the equivalent of the emissions from almost 1 million cars in a year.

The only other agricultural facility that has emitted more than 3 million tons a year over that span is also owned by ADM, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The Decatur facility’s emissions decreased by 6.6% over the past decade. ADM said the reduction was due to “energy efficiency projects and operational adjustments.”

But the facility still polluted more than any other agricultural facility, and, in 2019, the Decatur plant made up 12.3% of all greenhouse gas emissions from major agriculture corporations’ facilities, according to the analysis.

Donald Wuebbles, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Illinois, said the plant’s reduction is a step in the right direction.

“But,” he said, “we need much larger decreases in fossil fuel related emissions.”

Energy-intensive plants

The federal government has dished out millions of dollars to help ADM and other energy-intensive manufacturers curb its greenhouse gas emissions, but the money hasn't proved very effective.

Since 2009, the company has received about $280 million in federal tax subsidies from the U.S. Department of Energy for a second carbon storage program at its Decatur facility that's meant to rein in climate change.

In 2019, the Archer Daniels Midland plant at 4666 Faries Parkway in Decatur, Illinois, emitted 4.4 million metric tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), according to EPA data. Photo by Ignacio Calderon/Investigate Midwest

However, with a little over a year left on this project, the company has not met its promised sequestration goals, according to previous reporting from Investigate Midwest.  

It's not just ADM. The Department of Energy has invested about $5 billion in carbon capture programs since 2010, and the Decatur facility is seen as one of the few successes. Most other projects that received funding have been canceled due to high costs or performance issues.

ADM's Decatur facility churns out corn syrup. “Virtually every meal in America contains at least one ADM ingredient,” according to the company's website. It also makes products that are used in animal feed, hand sanitizer and ethanol, which is mixed with gasoline to reduce emissions. 

Making those products requires loads of energy, according to the EPA program Energy Star. Annually, a large wet corn mill uses enough electricity to power around 31,000 American homes.

Not much of that energy is clean. A study conducted by ADM and a consulting firm found that, in 2018, almost half of the company's energy usage came from burning coal.

Through Energy Star, companies can apply for a certification that says they meet an efficiency standard. Companies are not required to apply. Over the program's life, nine wet corn mills have been Energy Star certified, none belonging to ADM.

In its latest sustainability report, ADM acknowledged it has a large footprint and “a responsibility to lower greenhouse gas emissions related to our business activities.”

In 2011, it promised to reduce emissions company-wide by 15% by 2020. The company said it has met that goal. Its new one is to reduce emissions by 25% by 2035, according to financial documents.

On May 19, it announced that an earlier carbon capture program in Decatur — separate from the one that hasn’t met its goals — successfully stored about a million tons of greenhouse gas emissions over a three-year period.

“ADM is committed to leveraging innovation and technology to advance sustainability across every aspect of our business. Deploying carbon capture and storage technology in our processing operations is one of the many ways we are reducing our environmental footprint,” said Alison Taylor, ADM's Chief Sustainability Officer, in a statement.

Local perspective

In Decatur, where ADM's presence looms large, local officials said the company's efforts at reducing its carbon footprint are laudable.

“I think (ADM) has been more aggressive in the last couple of decades in trying to move towards a cleaner footprint,” said Moore Wolfe, the city's mayor.

David Horn, a Decatur city council member and a biology professor at Millikin University, said, in general, everyone should think about how to address climate change.

“In this era of global warming, I would encourage every company, every business and every individual to be rethinking how they can reduce their carbon footprint,” he said.

City officials emphasized how important ADM is to the local economy.

About 9% of the city’s workforce is employed by ADM, and its multinational status attracts other companies, Horn said.

“The best example of that is that this past year, a company called InnovaFeed has decided to build the world's largest insect protein production facility within the city of Decatur,” he said.

Decatur mayor Julie Moore Wolfe discussed how important ADM is to the city on Thursday, April 15, 2021. Photo by Ignacio Calderon/Investigate Midwest

Moore Wolfe agreed on the company’s economic importance.

“They're a very, very critical part of our economy, of our job space,” she said, “and they've really always been a good community supporter and neighbor.”

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How we analyzed the data

Since 2010, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has collected data on greenhouse gas emissions from the largest individual facilities. The data shows facilities that have emitted more than 25,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. We downloaded the data here

Then, we wanted to narrow our analysis to industrial agriculture, or Big Ag. 

There’s no industry classification the government uses for “Big Ag” through its North American Industry Classification System, so we used the NAICS codes that best describes industrial agriculture. 

We filtered the database for facilities that had the NAICS code 311 for “Food Manufacturing," which includes facilities like meatpacking plants, and 11 for “Agriculture, Forestry, Fishing and Hunting.” We then combined those into our “Big Ag” data set, which has a total of 378 facilities.

Then we calculated the total emissions from 2011 through 2019, the latest year data is available, to find what facilities have been the biggest emitters.

One thing to note is that not all facilities reported emissions throughout all those years. According to EPA, this could happen if the facility ceased operations, it merged with another facility that was already reporting to the database, or it has released emissions lower than the required threshold for several years in a row.

View the data diary here.

This story is a collaboration between USA TODAY and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. USA TODAY is funding a fellowship at the center for expanded coverage of agribusiness and its impact on communities.