The scope of world trade, which provides nations access to commodities, services and capital, is colossal and growing, MacLennan said. He noted global trade jumped more than 150 percent between 2000 and 2014, rising to $12.2 trillion from $4.8 trillion. In the United States alone, where Cargill is based, one third of US farmland is planted for exports.

Acknowledging that “trade is imperfect and that its benefits are not always evenly distributed,” MacLennan said trade often is scapegoated for other economic dislocations. For instance, he noted that 88 percent of US manufacturing job losses over the past decade were caused by increased productivity associated with information technology, robotics and organization.

“That’s a harsh reality to face for workers and their families,” he said. Still, due to economic growth, manufacturing jobs in the United States are growing.

“It’s estimated that nearly three and a half million manufacturing jobs will be needed, and two million are expected to go unfilled due to a widening skills gap,” MacLennan said. “The challenge is that the jobs of today will not be the jobs of tomorrow. That has been consistent throughout history. We need to immediately address this skills gap.”

MacLennan said companies like Cargill should make investments in its future workforce, but public policy and education systems “need to keep pace,” too.

As an example, MacLennan described a plant converted by Cargill from a beef processing facility to a cooked meat plant. A $100 million initiative prompted by changing consumer demand, the project required Cargill to retrain plant employees for “jobs that will be vital over the long term,” he said.

“Retooling and retraining isn’t easy,” he continued. “But as our societies move into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we need to address skills gaps to keep our businesses and economies strong.” 

Returning to the idea that trade is scapegoated for hardships around the world, MacLennan said trade becomes a “convenient excuse,” in part because of distortions perpetuated both by defenders and detractors of trade.

“Pro-trade factions tend to overpromise the benefits of trade, while those who advocate trade restrictions often blame trade policies for a variety of unrelated societal impacts,” MacLennan said. “The true nature of trade’s impact lies somewhere in between.”