Tyson and Other Meat Companies Linked to Biggest-Ever Dead Zone in the Gulf

At 8,776 square miles, this year's dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the largest ever measured.

Courtesy of N. Rabalais, LSU/LUMCON

This week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) revealed that the annual dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the largest ever measured.

Every year, around mid-summer, a “dead zone” appears in the Gulf of Mexico, just south of the Mississippi River Delta. It is, as its name suggests, a vast swath of highly polluted ocean in which oxygen levels are so low that fish cannot survive. It’s attributed to runoff from the Mississippi River, particularly pollution from the big corn, soy, and wheat-growing states located northward along the river. NOAA has been mapping this dead zone since 1985, and announced this week that this year’s is the largest ever measured—a patch of ocean about the size of New Jersey.

Shortly before NOAA’s announcement, a non-governmental organization called Mighty Earth published its own findings on the dead zone and its causes. (Mighty Earth, a division of the primarily demilitarization-focused think tank Center for International Policy, campaigns for environmental and agricultural causes around the world.) Mighty Earth’s findings go a step further, meting out blame to specific companies: meat producers Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods, among others.

“America is one of the largest agricultural producers, and one of the largest meat producers, and our number one crops are corn and soy, the majority of which goes to feed the meat industry,” says Lucia von Reusner, the campaign’s director. “We decided to find out who is responsible for driving these supply chains and impacts across the country. And in the same vein, who has the leverage and the responsibility to shift those supply chains to more sustainable practices.”

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Mighty Earth believes that the best path to reducing contamination is via public pressure on the point in the meat supply chain most able to effect change.

Von Reusner’s point depends on examining the meat industry’s overall supply chain in the U.S., which works mostly like this: primarily independent corn and soy farmers sell to farmers who raise livestock, many of which are technically independent, but exclusively supply one big company, like Tyson or Smithfield, which in turn often supplies both the birds and the feed to said farmers. That big company then buys animals for processing and sale. “It’s important for us to point out the supply chain, and say, hey, we’re not involved in the crop production business, and frankly, we own very few farms,” says Gary Mickelson, Tyson’s senior director of public relations, on a phone call.

But Mighty Earth isn’t saying that the major meat companies are directly responsible for pollution; instead, they’re saying that these companies are the fulcrum in the entire system—the only entity with enough sway to truly change the way the whole system works. If Tyson or Smithfield decrees that they’ll only buy animals that are fed with a soil-healthy diet, everything changes. The farmers toward the bottom of the supply chain don’t have as much agency; large changes to the way they grow or raise animals could be more expensive and cut into their profits, and those farmers might not have a market for, say, rye or some other crop used to replenish the soil. The farmers can’t really change how they farm, but, says Mighty Earth, the top-level buyer—the meat companies—have the ability to make those changes.

Mickelson says that Tyson buys mostly from grain suppliers who themselves get their grain from individual farmers. “We do not currently have a system to identify a particular row crop from a specific farmer or have the ability to know their farming practices,” wrote Mickelson in a follow-up email. But what Mighty Earth is saying is that Tyson should have a system of policies to encourage better farming practices, that the individual grain farmers are only growing what they know they can sell. If Tyson were to make it clear that they prefer better practices, Mighty Earth believes the farmers would follow.

The research, using publicly available data from NOAA, the USDA, and the US Geologic Survey, compared locations of facilities owned by various companies with data concerning nitrate pollution levels. Tyson and Smithfield ran the highest number of facilities in the parts of the country with the highest levels of nitrate contamination.

If Tyson can figure out how to market organic meat, doing the right thing for the planet might also be doing the right thing for the stockholders.

If you’re thinking that sounds like correlation and not causation, well, yes, sort of. Mighty Earth didn’t factor in the size of the individual plants, meaning that a very small facility and a very large facility, though not equal in terms of pollution output, would show up as equally responsible on their map. And the size of the facility could reflect the amount of grain these companies buy from a given area. Tyson, for example, writes that they “buy local grain, which is used to raise our poultry, feed your community and feed the world,” on its website. Bigger facilities could then equal substantially more local grain, and when that grain isn’t grown with the environment in mind, could equal more pollution.

That said, the US meat market buys 40 percent of American corn (another 40 percent goes to ethanol) and 70 percent of American soybeans, and Tyson controls a whopping 25 percent of the entire meat market (that’s chicken, beef, and pork). Tyson is also the only company to have facilities in all the states NOAA says contribute the most to the Gulf’s dead zone.

In any case, Mighty Earth is very intentionally naming these companies; they believe that the best path to reducing contamination—as well as a whole host of other benefits, environmental and economic—is via public pressure on the point in the meat supply chain most able to effect change. “The meat industry is the dominant shaping force of how agriculture is produced in the United States,” says von Reusner. Farmers are not really in much of a position to change anything; they farm what can sell, and their buyers are meat producers who demand corn and soy. That narrow-focused demand creates many of the problems in agriculture, the most pressing of which is that monocropping depletes the soil of nutrients, forcing the use of more fertilizer, the excess of which runs into rivers and streams. “Tyson and other meat companies are really in the best position to shift the market, shift practices, shift incentives for agriculture across America,” she says.

The upsides are strong for this case; aside from the fact that increasing incentives for crop rotation and responsible fertilizer and soil use is, it’s fair to say, the morally correct thing to do, there’s also money to be made here. Consumers are increasingly looking for, and sometimes willing to pay more for, sustainably produced food; organic food profits have outstripped conventional food profits by a mile over the past decade. If Tyson can figure out how to market it—and hopefully if the USDA can figure out how to regulate the claims—doing the right thing for the planet might also be doing the right thing for the stockholders.

“As part of our deepened commitment to holistic sustainable food production, we’ve begun the process of evaluating all the parts of our supply chain where we believe we can make positive impacts, so we may one day seek to partner with crop farmers on their practices,” wrote Mickelson in an email. But in our phone conversation, Mickelson seemed to feel Tyson was being unfairly blamed for the problem. “People think we’re a bad actor based on what some small environmental group came up with and how they decided to pin it on Tyson because we’re a well-known brand,” he said.

Beginning an evaluation process, and including a phrase like “we may one day seek to,” may not be particularly comforting to activists who think Tyson and other meat companies are in a position to make large-scale changes to a disturbing environmental problem. But work like this does achieve its initial goal of putting companies on their heels. Tyson was forced to respond, and that’s a small step forward.

Updated 08/08/2017 with additional comments from Tyson.

Tyson and Other Meat Companies Linked to Biggest-Ever Dead Zone in the Gulf