Every year, researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (Noaa) measure the size of the Gulf of Mexico “Dead Zone”.
This “dead zone” is an area of low oxygen that kills fish and other marine life. Toxins from manure and fertilizer that run into our waterways create large algal blooms, which are what is causing the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and the Great Lakes.
Every year, this dead zone continues to get bigger and bigger, and 2017 was no exception. That year, it encompassed 8 776 square miles. That was about three thousand square miles than the previous five-year average .
Where is all this toxic runoff coming from? Environmental group Mighty pointed toward commercial agriculture, namely Tyson Foods, as the number one culprit for dead zones. Enter, the Tyson Foods Dead Zone.
Tyson Foods Dead Zone
Mighty identified Tyson Foods as the “dominant” influence in the pollution that is causing the Gulf dead zone.
In their report, the organization analyzed supply chains of agribusiness and pollution trends. They found that vast expanses of native grasslands in the midwest were being converted into soy and corn to feed livestock.
Tyson is responsible for supplying companies like McDonald’s and Walmart with product. This requires them to slaughter thirty-five million chickens and 125 thousand cattle every week. In order to feed these animals, the company needs five million acres of corn every year for feed .
An operation this size generates an astronomical amount of waste. In 2016, Tyson Foods created 55 million tonnes of manure and had dumped 104 million tonnes of pollutants into waterways over the previous decade, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The Mighty researcher found that the highest levels of nitrate contamination occurred with clusters of Tyson Foods and Smithfield Foods.
Contaminated Drinking Water
Not only is this pollution creating a massive dead zone along the Gulf Coast, but researchers are also linking it to drinking water contamination. According to the Environmental Working Group, in 2015 water systems in 48 states contained high levels of nitrates. These systems supply water to seven million Americans.
This is extremely dangerous because consuming nitrates has been linked to higher rates of certain cancers .
Industry Response Tyson Foods Dead Zone Allegations
A spokesperson for Tyson gave the following response to the report:
“We don’t agree with the group’s characterization of our company but share its interest in protecting the environment. Tyson Foods is focused on continuous improvement. We are constantly looking to improve and lead the industry so that we can deliver sustainable food to people every day at a scale that matters to the world.” 
Industry insiders and critics of the Mighty report have cited five things that the organization failed to mention in their analysis:
1. Crops are not just used to feed livestock.
The Mighty report pointed out the vast quantities of feed that Tyson (and other commercial agriculture companies) use to feed their animals is the reason for the pollution. While this certainly plays a large role, it is not the sole contributor. According to the USDA, over forty percent of corn grown in the US is used for ethanol .
2. The pork industry has made significant improvements
The pork industry has been working to reduce its carbon footprint, and in the last fifty years, it has improved its feed conversion ratio by 33 percent. This means that the US pork industry uses less feed and less land per pound of pork than it did fifty years ago .
3. Livestock producers recycle
A certain percentage of fuels produced in the US have to be from renewable resources. Livestock producers often use distillers grains as a feed source, effectively “recycling” what would otherwise be a wasted byproduct .
4. There are rules about runoff
Most states have requirements that animal feeding operations must have manure nutrient management plans in place. This means that producers have to limit how much manure they use according to what is appropriate for the crop. Livestock producers are also held to a “zero discharge standard”, which means that livestock producers are not permitted to discharge manure nutrients into surface water .
5. The environment is important to farmers
Farmers want to keep nutrients in their fields, and want to protect the environment in order to protect their crops .
Tyson Foods Dead Zone: Is there a Solution?
Despite this, one fact remains: commercial agriculture has a profound impact on our environment. While it may not be the sole reason behind the Gulf Dead Zone, it is certainly a substantial contributor.
Environmental activists and organizations believe there is a way to fix this, and they are calling on large companies like Tyson to lead the way.
The Mighty report is urging Tyson and other large agricultural corporations to use their influence in the industry to ensure that grain producers are using practices that reduce the amount of pollution flowing into waterways. This includes not leaving soil uncovered by crops and being more efficient with fertilizers .
Other farm-based conservation efforts would help as well. This could include digging wider, two-stage drainage ditches that would help to “capture” nutrient runoff during periods of heavy rain .
Companies in the private sector should also demand that corn be raised through more sustainable practices .
Reduce Your Meat Consumption to Prevent Dead Zones
The USDA is predicting that by 2025, the average American will eat 219 pounds of meat per year. This is up from 211 pounds in 2015 .
This insatiable meat habit in the United States is contributing to climate change in a significant way. Reducing how much meat you eat decreases the need for raw crops like corn. This, in turn, reduces nutrient pollution that ends up in our waterways .
Currently, only an estimated two percent of Americans follow a vegetarian or vegan diet . While strictly consuming no meat may not work for everyone, actively decreasing the amount of meat you eat on a regular basis can go a long way in protecting our environment.
Could Technology be the Answer?
New technology may also provide a solution to prevent aquatic dead zones. In March 2020, new research emerged that experimented with the idea of pumping oxygen-rich surface water into the depths of lakes, estuaries, and coastal ocean waters. The goal would be to improve coastal dead zones and prevent hypoxia (aka, oxygen deprivation).
Researchers performed a field experiment at the Searsville Reservoir in Woodside, California. They found that downwelling could increase oxygen saturation in the immediate area by ten to thirty percent. This would be enough to keep many aquatic organisms alive.
Tyson Foods Dead Zone: The Bottom Line
Agriculture of any kind has an impact on the environment. Large-scale commercial agriculture in particular can cause a wide range of environmental issues like loss of biodiversity, destruction of natural ecosystems, and soil, air, and water pollution.
It is important for all of us to consider how the foods we eat are impacting the environment. Livestock production requires an enormous amount of resources and, as we have seen, produces dangerous levels of pollution.
One very easy way we can all reduce our own footprint (and therefore the footprint of large companies like Tyson) is by simply consuming less meat. One easy way to do this is to designate specific days of the week as “meatless”. You even just start by reducing the portion of meat you eat at any given meal.
Of course, it is also important that we, as consumers, continue to put pressure on large corporations like Tyson to improve their practices and be transparent with their operations. The bottom line is that these companies are looking to make a profit. You, as the consumer, have a powerful voice in what they do, and do not, do.
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