A few days ago, Environment America published a short report on the impact on the environment of the US meat colossus Tyson Foods (http://www.tyson.com/). Every week Tyson Foods butchers and processes the meat of 41 million chickens, 383,000 hogs and 133,000 cattle.
These figures, as the Environment America report points out, have a devastating impact on the environment due to a multiplicity of factors, such as manure from the corporation’s contract growers’ factory farm operations, fertilizer runoff from grain grown to feed livestock and waste from its processing plants.
The Tyson Foods figures are disconcerting. The report in fact speaks of 104 million pounds of pollutants dumped into American waterways from 2010 to 2014, which gives the corporation the dubious distinction of second place in the table of volumes of toxic discharges for the period, behind the leading steel manufacturer AK Steel Holding Corp.
Of the harmful substances Tyson Food discharges into the atmosphere, the most prevalent are nitrates, the ones most responsible for the formation of so-called dead zones in water on the planet, immense portions of sea and ocean virtually devoid of fish and other forms of superior life, a phenomenon so macroscopic and imposing it is observable even by satellites … The problem for the environment derives from the fact that animals retain only part of the nutrients they receive through feed, while the remaining percentage ends up back in the soil, where it is accumulated year by year. Three to 20 percent of excess nutrients in the soil inevitably winds up in river and sea water. Nitrates, moreover, constitute a threat for human health, and now some US cities, such as Des Moines, are treating their drinking water to remove excess amounts of these substances.
The two-page Environment America report brings us face to face yet again with a problem whose magnitude would still appear to be underestimated, as another report published a few months ago by Chatham House demonstrates. The title Livestock: Climate Change’s Forgotten Sector sums up the contents of the report, which laments the lack of attention many governments devote to the question, de facto contributing to public opinion’s poor understanding of it. As yet, only a few people have a clear idea of how livestock farming and meat consumption impinge upon climate change.
Reading both reports the question remains: how can we achieve an effective change in direction? There are no simple solutions. True, on the one hand we need to reduce consumption per capita, placing the emphasis on quality and reduced meat consumption. To achieve this, the first step is to avoid buying meat produced by large groups such as Tyson Foods, which makes a by no means minor contribution to exacerbating the problem of climate change. Meat with less impact on the environment does exist and it is necessary to look for and favor alternatives.
But according to Chatham House, the individual choices of a few people—for the question still concerns only a few—will not suffice to achieve effective change. More public policies, more initiatives and campaigns to contain emissions from livestock and meat consumption are now needed. As are strategies that include countries such as Brazil, India and China, where the demand is expected to grow sizably.
Our recommendation hasn’t changed: when you buy meat, think about the environment. It’s quite likely that meat that is good for the climate will also be better for you. And tastier, too.
by Silvia Ceriani