Get ready to pay more for meat. As the 21st century unfolds there is a looming issue that, sooner or later, needs to be addressed by all parties in the animal agriculture and food processing sectors. It’s called pollution, it’s a significant problem that has to be resolved.
The bad news is that solutions are expensive. Seriously expensive, which is why that such problems as fertilizer runoff and manure management haven’t already been addressed.
The good news is that, unlike national security, income inequality or half a dozen other controversies endlessly harangued by the current crop of presidential candidates — on both ends of political spectrum — the pollution attributed to the meat, poultry and dairy industries can be effectively controlled, if not eliminated.
All it takes is a major infusion of money and an even larger dose of political will.
But don’t think that the issue of agribusiness and its impact on soil, water and air quality is going to go away anytime soon. Just as the notion that raising livestock is the major threat to global warming has taken root among an uncomfortably large cross-section of consumers, the impact of “industrial agriculture” and “corporate agribusiness” with regard to pollution is headed in one direction only: toward eventual status as conventional “wisdom.”
Here’s an example.
A recently released report by the think tank Center for American Progress named Tyson Foods as one of the worst polluters in the country. In case that point wasn’t communicated strongly enough, the headline on its report read, “This Meat Company Dumps More Pollution Into Waterways Each Year Than ExxonMobil.”
The company, of course, is Tyson Foods, and before anyone condemns the Center for American Progress as a bunch of lefty-liberal wackos, consider that the center is stocked with ex-Clinton administration Cabinet members, staffers and policy wonks, none of whom can truly be called liberal.
Just ask Bernie Sanders supporters.
Even Thomas Friedman, the high-profile columnist and author who coined the “global economy” phrase, and who’s never been accused of being even remotely progressive, called the center’s work on climate change “indispensable.”
So let’s consider its reporting as plausible, if not 100% precise.
Understanding the differences
On the center’s hit list of polluters, Tyson Foods comes in at No. 2, Cargill at No. 4, Perdue Farms at No. 8 and Pilgrim’s Pride at No. 11. They’re all judged to be worse polluters than Exxon Mobil, which any reputable poll would confirm is the public’s poster boy for “Big Bad Polluter.”
Of course, the center’s report calculates not just the impact of poor manure management by beef and pork producers — the public’s perennial targets — as runoff into surface and groundwater, but also explained that, “The company’s pollution footprint includes manure from its contract growers’ factory farm operations, fertilizer runoff from grain grown to feed the livestock it brings to market as meat, and waste from its processing plants.”
Pollution footprint. Get used to that term, because it’s going to be repeated about eight hundred thousand times in the next few years by both industry haters out to eliminate livestock production and sober, serious scientists legitimately concerned about the health of the nation’s water resources.
However, there is one hugely significant difference between the pollution footprint of Tyson Foods, et al, and that of Exxon Mobil and friends. The “toxic waste” attributed to the meat, poultry and dairy production and processing chain consists of organic matter for which technologies already exist to further process it as both a source of energy — albeit, decentralized, site-specific energy — and fertilizer for pastures and row crops.
Whereas, a truly toxic oil spill or refinery discharge consists of crude oil and/or petroleum derivatives that absolutely devastate waterways, beachfronts and marine life. The Exxon Valdez tanker than ran aground in Prince William Sound in 1989, as an example, dumped 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into the water, which in just the first few days afterwards killed an estimated 500,000 seabirds, thousands of sea otters, hundreds of harbor seals and bald eagles and dozens of killer whales and river otters.
More than 25 years later, according to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the salmon and herring fisheries have yet to fully recover, and more than 26,000 gallons of crude oil remains trapped in the sand along the shoreline, oil that will take another 25 years to biodegrade.
Rather than fighting over how to document the pollution connected with animal agriculture, or making “it’s not as bad” comparisons to oil spills, the response to the criticism of industry needs to be forward thinking. The solution must include widespread implementation of technologies to effectively manage manure.
Every farm, growout facility and feedlot in America ought to have the systems in place to ensure that manure is managed and treated as a resource, not a waste product.
With the operative word being “treated.”
Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator