According to a report issued this week by the NGO Mighty Earth, the U.S. meat industry is largely responsible for what has become the largest “dead zone” ever in the Gulf of Mexico. While past studies have showcased the meat and poultry sectors’ impact on both the environment and public health, Mighty’s study sheds light on the large agribusiness companies the NGO says contribute to the Gulf’s ongoing environmental degradation attributed to algae blooms.
The companies mentioned in Mighty’s report includes some of the world’s largest and well-known food companies: ADM, Bunge, Cargill, Smithfield and Tyson Foods. But rather than simply single out these corporations, the report offers suggestions on how these and other agribusiness leaders can clean up their supply chains and strengthen their trust with consumers, who have increasingly taken food companies to task over issues such as antibiotics, animal welfare and deforestation.
According to Mighty, Tyson responded to the report and the NGO shortly after its release. A Mighty representative told TriplePundit in an email exchange that the company did not offer any real commitments, but said the company is "working to determine its full environmental impact and looks forward to a collaborative partnership." Tyson also told Mighty that the company is conducting a life cycle analysis to find the largest environmental impacts in their supply chain as it recognizes that animal feed is a major part of its overall impact.
The report comes as the global beef industry insists it has become more sustainable, and other companies such as Tyson have made investments in plant-based protein companies including Beyond Meat. Despite these businesses’ moves to demonstrate their sustainability street cred, Mighty insists there is still much room for improvement.
Ed. Note: Gary Mickelson Sr. Director – External Communications
Tyson Foods, Inc. Tyson reached out to us to share a statement:
Your story "Report: U.S. Meat Industry Linked to Largest Gulf Dead Zone Ever" includes no comments from the meat industry or our company. We believe the report, and your headline, are extremely misleading. Below are our comments on the report as well as a link to a blog by the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), which notes the “report’s claims are akin to blaming the steel industry for auto emissions because a steel is used in cars.” We’re hopeful you’ll consider adding our perspective, as well as the views of NAMI, to your story.
Tyson Foods Statement
We share this group’s concern about the environment but disagree with its misleading characterization of our company. Tyson Foods is not in the business of raising the crops and we own very few livestock farms. Instead, we depend on thousands of independent farmers to raise our chickens or sell us their cattle or hogs. We work closely with our partners from farm-to-fork to identify and deploy new technologies designed to better protect the environment, our workforce, and the communities we serve.
The livestock and poultry industry is a major buyer of grain for feed, however, this group’s report fails to address that a large percentage of corn raised in the U.S. is used for biofuel and a significant portion is used for human consumption.
We’re committed to the environment. That’s why we publicly disclose our environmental efforts and recently announced that we’re collaborating with the World Resources Institute to develop goals for improving our environmental footprint. We also plan to announce our collaboration with other third-party organizations that will work with us to set additional science-based targets. These efforts are part of our comprehensive, holistic approach to sustainability, that is focused on healthier animals, healthier environment, healthier workforce, healthier communities, and healthier food.
Our environmental commitment also includes an environmental management system at each of our facilities designed to enable more sustainable operations, continued focus on more recycling and long-term participation in EPA’s SmartWay energy conservation program.
Tyson Foods is focused on continuous improvement. We believe real change will come from a coalition of leaders from all parts of the supply chain, research institutions and advocacy groups to create an operating approach that protects resources, supports farmers, and feeds America.
North American Meat Institute Blog
Mighty Earth’s Mighty Miss http://blog.meatinstitute.org/
The foundation of the problem is Mighty’s citing of 2015 statistics that suggested the average American eats 215 pounds of red meat and poultry annually. That is a jump after years of declining meat consumption, and that figure is expected to rise in the next few years. As a result, the authors of Mighty’s report says more prairies are being converted to lands dedicated to raising grains animal feed. In turn, manure and fertilizers applied to nourish those grains eventually find themselves washed down to waterways including the Mississippi River, and eventually in the Gulf of Mexico.
And while just about every U.S. state hosts its share of meat producers and their supply chains, this industry is entrenched in the Midwest, where corn and soy thrive, allowing companies to maximize efficiencies by consolidating their operations and supply chains within America’s heartland.
As a result, Mighty estimates that 1.15 million metric tons of nitrates from fertilizers ended up in the Gulf of Mexico during 2016 alone, which resulted in an impact 170 times the size of the 2010 BP oil spill.
Those costs are often borne by taxpayers directly or indirectly. Mighty suggests that Americans spend at least $1 billion on bottled water annually due to nitrate pollution, while municipal water systems spend about $2 billion to treat water tainted by nitrate runoff. Fishing companies that traipse about the Gulf of Mexico pay, too, as in the estimated $82 million annually in lost sales and public health expenditures related to the algae blooms.
Mighty offers a 5-point strategy that it says could mitigate the meat industry’s impact on the Midwest’s environment while reducing those Gulf algae blooms. First, “pollution-free” feed is a start. By Mighty’s definition, this tactic goes beyond monitoring nitrogen and phosphorous levels. Ensuring soil health by preventing erosion and restoring “buffer” areas such as grasslands and wetlands around farms and waterways are also important steps.
In addition, the report’s authors suggest moving away from monoculture farms and encourage farmers to raise other grains such as oats, wheat and barley. The NGO claims such tactics can improve soil quality while also improving the health of livestock by providing them a more diversified diet.
Next is a buzzword that is sure to start a stink: “responsible manure management.” Instead of storing animal waste in ponds or lagoons, Mighty says it behooves companies such as Tyson to work with their supply chains and find alternative ways to reduce the environmental impact of manure (one dairy farmer in California, for example, has long used manure for renewable power via an anaerobic digester). Whether these large companies will help fund this projects for their suppliers, who often operate on thin margins, is a huge open question.
Finally, Mighty is asking companies to adopt a one-two punch to ensure their operations and supply chains are more sustainable. Companies could pledge not to source from suppliers found to cause damage to ecosystems across the U.S. prairies - similar to declarations made by firms to stop relationships with companies that have been responsible for deforestation in regions such as Latin America and Southeast Asia. Such policies tie in to the fifth and final suggestion: more transparency so that these companies’ stakeholders and their suppliers can see in real time the effects these companies are having in the areas and communities in which they operate.
Image credit: Aaron Carlson/Flick
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.