The Warped Environmentalism of America’s Biggest Industrial Meat Producer

Tyson Foods has a plan to stave off regulation and put a friendly face on its pollution.

Mark Reinstein/ZUMA

This story was originally published by HuffPost and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. 

Justin Whitmore has the unenviable job of trying to make the nation’s biggest industrial meat company look virtuous.

The 35-year-old former McKinsey consultant became Tyson Foods’ first sustainability chief in May. He’s tall, fit and slim, with a clean-shaven face and head, a rhotic Ohio accent, and a no-nonsense demeanor. For Tyson, simply hiring someone with this job title marks an unprecedented step toward cleaning up the reputation of a slaughterhouse colossus infamous for pollution, inhumane treatment of animals and emissions of planet-warming gases. The company processes 35 million chickens, 424,000 pigs and 130,000 cattle per week, producing one of every five pounds of all the meat in the United States.

In that role, Whitmore has started new partnerships with corporate-friendly environmental groups, such as the World Resources Institute. The chief executive who hired him, Tom Hayes, has appeared at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to “participate in conversations” about the need for sustainability. The company’s renewable energy use increased 32 percent in 2016 from the year before, according to its latest sustainability report. It announced plans to stop using antibiotics on its chicken and launched a line of antibiotic-free pork. Whitmore’s efforts won fawning coverage in places ranging from the sustainability wonks GreenBiz and Live Kindly, to top business outlets CNBC and Quartz.

Three months after starting the job, Whitmore took on the added responsibility of overseeing Tyson’s mergers and acquisitions. So, he’s been busy. Tyson raised its stake in Beyond Meat, a company that makes burgers, sausages and chicken strips out of peas and other plant proteins, in January, and invested in Memphis Meats, a lab-grown meat startup.

Yet the moves amount to small, incremental steps from a $28 billion company in one of the world’s most-polluting industries. Far from articulating the sort of structural changes many scientists say are needed to avert climate disaster and reverse years of environmental destruction, the plans Whitmore has outlined rely on a system of self regulation, a business-as-usual approach under the leadership of a few reformist executives who say the right things on climate change and can spin the pollution crisis their industries have wrought as “opportunities to lead.”

In that regard, one might describe Whitmore’s efforts as lipstick on an antibiotic-juiced pig. Transforming a company whose brand evokes Upton Sinclair-esque horrors into a beacon of environmental stewardship will require far more radical ideas than those Tyson has yet embraced.

“The challenges that we’ll have to think through are broad in scope,” Whitmore said in a wide-ranging interview at HuffPost’s New York office late last month.

“We have to play a major role in the transformation of how food impacts the environment,” he added. “We want to lead, we see ourselves as a company that will be required to lead to achieve our ultimate purpose. We hope that work over time will pull along the industry as well.”

Yet that time is running out as fossil fuel emissions are hitting a record high, the rate of carbon dioxide pollution is increasing for the first time in three years, and other, more powerful types of greenhouse gases linked to meat production are surging. Independent estimates of Tyson’s planet-warming emissions are staggering. In 2016, the company produced 118 megatons of carbon dioxide, roughly a quarter of what oil giant Exxon Mobil Corp. emitted, according to a study by the nonprofits Grain and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

“They’ve understood for a long time that their industry is a major contributor to climate change, yet they’ve done absolutely nothing concrete to deal with that reality,” Devlin Kuyek, a researcher at Grain and co-author of the report, told HuffPost. “If we can point to the oil companies as being villains in creating climate change and knowing full well about it and doing nothing about it, I think the same applies to these big meat companies.”

Tyson began an audit of its greenhouse gas emissions in June, under the guidance of the nonprofit World Resources Institute. The company said this month it plans to reduce its reduce emissions by 30 percent by 2030―though Whitmore said Tyson has no current plans to make its calculation public.

“The level of detail that we share publicly, we have not yet aligned on internally,” Whitmore said.

Whitmore declined to say whether other groups’ calculations of Tyson’s emissions come close to the company’s own metrics.  

But even as the company works to cut emissions, it remained until recently a member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the massive corporate trade lobby that has for years fought regulatory attempts to curb climate-changing gases. The chamber takes such a vehement stance against established climate science that Apple and Nike quit in 2009, under shareholder pressure. A Tyson spokesman said the company “chose to invest in other things.” 

Whitmore said he didn’t want to speak in terms of specific trade groups, but said he is philosophically opposed to withdrawing in protest.

“The idea that you would disassociate from a group that you don’t have 100-percent alignment with on specific topics―and this a broad statement, not related to Tyson specifically―to me is a generally ineffective way of driving change throughout an industry,” he said.

“What you want are change agents within those groups that can help bring everyone along,” he added. “We could play that role in instances where that may or may not be true. No commentary on if that’s the case today though.”

Tyson has opened its checkbook to politicians who reject the science behind global warming and vote against regulations to deal with it. In 2014, Tyson donated to Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), all of whom deny that humans are causing climate change and hold 5 percent, 9 percent and 3 percent lifetime scores, respectively, on the League of Conservation Voters’ ranking, which is based on votes for or against environmental protections. The company has waded into environmental issues in the past, lobbying in 2009 on Democrats’ doomed cap-and-trade bill and in 2010 on legislation to clean up the Chesapeake Bay, which is heavily polluted by its poultry processing plants.

Those political donations preceded Whitmore’s time at Tyson, and much of the company’s leadership team has changed since Tom Hayes became chief executive at the end of 2016. Whitmore declined to comment on earlier donations, but would not commit to withholding contributions to candidates who reject climate science or vote to eliminate environmental safeguards.

“We would have to look at what an individual politician is thinking about broadly and it won’t be our position as a company to support any one part or any one issue,” he said.  

Tyson’s record of flouting environmental rules raises questions about its regional political priorities. Fertilizer and manure pollution from an extensive network of animal feed suppliers that included Tyson’s created the largest toxic dead zone in U.S. history on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, according to a report released last year by the environmental advocate Mighty Earth.

In September, Tyson agreed to pay a $2 million fine for violating the Clean Water Act by dumping waste from a chicken processing plant into a river in Missouri, causing a widespread fish kill. On Tuesday, a federal court in Springfield, Missouri, officially sentenced Tyson, ordering it to pay an additional $500,000 to clean up the creek where approximately 108,000 fish were killed. In announcing the sentence, the Justice Department called the company’s behavior among the “most egregious violations.”

“I don’t think there needs to be a tension between Tyson and any regulating body,” Whitmore told HuffPost. “I don’t think that in order for us to be good actors that we have to be regulated.”

Earlier this month, a group of faith-based institutional investors filed a shareholder resolution demanding Tyson clean up its operations and curtail pollution. Tyson executives ignored the proposal, even as activists staged a rally outside company headquarters in Springdale, Arkansas.

“If the company wants to be taken seriously in its commitment to being sustainable, it has to do more,” Lucia von Reusner, a campaign director at Mighty Earth, told HuffPost. “The baseline is so low right now and the impacts are so bad that there’s really only room for improvement. How big those improvements are, and whether the company can ever truly be seen as sustainable, remains to be seen.”

One way Tyson is trying to make improvements is by experimenting with ways to produce less waste at its poultry farms. In February 2017, Hayes outlined plans for a vertical farming concept, with broiler chickens raised in a tower. A slide included in an investor PowerPoint shows birds in what Whitmore called “baskets” stacked about one story high. Similar cage structures are already in use at poultry farms in China, though Whitmore insisted “cages aren’t the game plan.” 

“Those are baskets that you’re looking at,” he said, when asked to explain the photo in the slide. “If you were to get a vertical view you’d see that there’s a tremendous amount of space for the birds ― you actually have more space―and their access to water is increased, they’re not walking in manure because it’s going through the bottom of that system into a conveyor.”

Whitmore said the company had not yet determined if the basket towers would be commercially viable.

“What we’re testing at our concept farm does not necessarily translate to what you see across the [4,000] growers that ultimately grow the chickens,” he said. “What you will see is a testing and proving ground, like the basket system that catches manure.”

To be sure, meat demand is surging. Meat production is expected to double by 2020 as developing economies like India and China become wealthier and the people who live there eat more pork, beef and chicken.

Chicken alone has become so popular that scientists say the birds’ bones serve as the key marker in the fossil record of the dawn of the Anthropocene, the epoch of human-induced planetary change that many say the Earth is now undergoing. In the U.S. alone, annual chicken consumption per capita increased to a projected record of 92.5 pounds in 2018 from 28 pounds in 1960, according to the National Chicken Council. Tyson is a publicly traded company that sells meat, and its investors want it to service a growing market.

“Justin is a smart, modern thinker, but this is a mass problem,” Leah Garces, executive director of the U.S. branch of the nonprofit Compassion in World Farming, told HuffPost. “The reality is there are going to be 10 billion people on this planet. He knows the pressure.”

But even as Whitmore adds pea-based proteins to the company’s portfolio, he cautioned that Tyson has no plans shrink its meat business.

“Alternative proteins will play a role, but that role will be side by side with traditional protein, whether that be pork, chicken or beef,” he said. “But I don’t think the world necessarily needs to eat less meat, from a sustainability perspective.”

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