Gulf of Mexico NOAA

Gulf of Mexico dead zone misplaced blame game

Who is responsible for the dead zone in Gulf of Mexico? Meat industry, claims environmental group.

The meat industry is “behind the quiet destruction of the American Heartland” — strong words greeting us this morning from Washington, D.C., environmental group Mighty Earth. In the group’s recent report, it is playing the blame game by labeling Tyson Foods and other large agribusinesses — Smithfield, JBS, ADM and Cargill — for driving massive fertilizer runoff to the Gulf of Mexico.

“While there has been significant research into the vast environmental and public health impacts of the meat industry, there has been little exploration of who exactly is responsible. This investigation attempts to fill that gap by shedding light on the industries and specific companies driving meat’s environmental impact in America” — excerpt from Mighty Earth’s Mystery Meat II report.

As a person who has worked collaboratively on water quality issues for over a decade before joining the media world, I have read my share of reports, attended numerous meetings and participated in many hefty discussions on the Gulf of Mexico dead zone. As an advocate for farm drainage — particularly tile — in Illinois, I definitely heard it all and actually been at the center of the blame game.

So, here is how this argument goes:

The majority of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States is used for food animal production. Using mapping data, Mighty Earth links top meat companies to the region of the United States —Midwest — that raises the most corn and soybeans. Basically, Tyson and Smithfield are responsible for Gulf of Mexico dead zone just because the company has the most meat processing facilities located in the same geographic location as the large corn and soybean acreage. Obviously, livestock production is located in areas with local access to resources — land, feed and processing plants.

Although the story is told differently, it still comes down to the same non-point source decades-long debate — is nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from agriculture fields causing the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and other water bodies?

Still, what is not being told?

  • Algae bloom in the Gulf of Mexico occurred before the existence of commercial fertilizer.
  • Drainage ditches dug by men in the late-1800s and early 1900s for the sole purpose of agriculture drainage (still used today for direct field runoff) supports excellent wildlife habitat including fish.
  • In a comprehensive study, the entire pork production chain shows in 50 years today’s U.S. hog farmers are using 78% less land and 41% less water per pound of pork produced. Driven by science, technology advancement in livestock and crop production has allowed America’s pig farmers to raise more pounds of pork with fewer of earth’s resources — 12.1 billion pounds of pork per farmer in 1959 versus 22.8 billion in 2009.
  • Farmers and ranchers are using formal nutrient management plans every day on the farm to properly restore essential nutrients to the soil by utilizing manure from livestock farms or commercial fertilizer.
  • The report fails to note that grain raised on U.S. cropland is also used for plant-based food items for human consumption, everyday household items and biofuels.

The environment is important to farmers, ranchers and companies like Tyson. Essentially, Mighty Earth is just making it personal by naming names, grabbing attention for the real reason behind the report to scare consumers and ultimately end all meat production.

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