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Corporate Food Brands Drive the Massive Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico

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Mighty Earth

By Reynard Loki

Whole Foods bills itself as "America's healthiest grocery store," but what it's doing to the environment is anything but healthy. According to a new report, the chain is helping to drive one of the nation's worst human-made environmental disasters: the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.


By not requiring environmental safeguards from its meat suppliers, the world's largest natural and organic foods supermarket—and most of its big-brand counterparts in the retail food industry, like McDonald's, Subway and Target—are sourcing and selling meat from some of the worst polluters in agribusiness, including Tyson Foods and Cargill. The animal waste and fertilizer runoff from their industrial farms end up in the Gulf of Mexico, where each summer, a growing marine wasteland spreads for thousands of miles, leaving countless dead wildlife in its oxygen-depleted wake.

Community members and environmental activists demonstrate outside Whole Foods headquarters in Austin, Texas, on August 2, 2018.Mighty Earth

"The major meat producers like Tyson and Cargill that have consolidated control over the market have the leverage to dramatically improve the supply chain," according to the report, which was released by Mighty Earth, an environmental action group based in Washington, DC. "Yet to date they have done little," the report's authors note, "ignoring public concerns and allowing the environmentally damaging practices for feeding and raising meat to expand largely unchecked."

How animal feed moves through the meat supply chain.Mighty Earth

On Aug. 2, the day the report was released, those public concerns found a voice as citizens, environmentalists and sustainability advocates gathered outside Whole Foods headquarters in Austin, Texas, to deliver 95,000 petition signatures demanding that the company hold its meat suppliers accountable for their role in destroying the environment.

"Grocery stores like Walmart and Whole Foods and meal outlets like McDonald's and Burger King have the power to set and enforce standards requiring better farming practices from suppliers," states the report, which Mighty Earth says is the "first comprehensive assessment of major US food brands on their environmental standards and performance for sourced meat."

Feeding the Nation, Failing the Environment

Ranking the largest food companies in the U.S. based on their sustainability policies for meat production, the report found that the biggest players in the food industry—including major fast food, grocery and food service companies—are failing to protect the environment from the impact of their supply chains. Remarkably, the researchers found that not a single one of the 23 major brands surveyed have policies in place to require "even minimal environmental protections from meat suppliers."

Even more startling is that so-called "green" brands like Whole Foods that have built their reputations on providing sustainable food options have, according to the report, "failed to commit to environmentally responsible farming practices that protect drinking water, prevent agricultural runoff and curb climate emissions."

The 23 companies surveyed were evaluated on their requirements for meat suppliers regarding where they source their animal feed, how they process their animals' manure and how they manage their greenhouse gas emissions.

All but one of the companies scored an "F" overall for their environmental policies (or lack thereof) for meat sourcing. The only company to score better than an "F" was Walmart, which received a "D" due to its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions across its supply chain, as well as the launching of programs meant to improve the management of manure and increase the sustainability of corn and soy farming.

Soil erosion and agricultural runoff are the top sources of water pollution in the U.S.Mighty Earth

Dead Cows on Your Plate, Dead Fish in the Ocean

In oceans and large lakes across the globe, human activities are creating oxygen-depleted areas where marine life can no longer survive. These hypoxic areas, currently numbering more than 400 around the globe, are commonly known as "dead zones," and are caused by an increase in certain chemical nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus that drive the massive growth of algae, causing the spread of deadly "algal blooms." As the algae decomposes, their biomass consumes the oxygen in the water, suffocating fish and other marine life.

Algal blooms are harmful to ecosystems because the blooming organisms contain toxins, noxious chemicals or pathogens. They also suck up all the oxygen, killing fish and other marine life.National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

In the U.S. the largest recurring dead zone is located in the Gulf of Mexico, mainly off the coast of Louisiana, and extending east to the Mississippi River Delta and west to Texas. The Gulf acts as a massive drainage basin for polluted water containing manure and fertilizer runoff coming from the American heartland, from major beef-producing states like Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. During summer months, this area becomes a 7,000-mile-wide lifeless region—the only reminders of past life being the bodies of fish, crabs, shrimp and other marine animals that have suffocated due to a lack of oxygen. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone is the second-largest human-caused dead zone in the world, after the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Oman.

The Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Basin drains approximately 41 percent of the contiguous United States that includes all or part of 31 states and two Canadian provinces. Map scale is approximately 2,000 miles across.Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality

"Excess nutrients bleeding off fertilized crops constitute the overwhelming source—over 70 percent—of the nutrient pollution that causes the Gulf Dead Zone," Donald Boesch, a professor of marine science and former president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, told the Independent Media Institute.

In August 2017, scientists measured the Gulf of Mexico dead zone and found that it was at its largest since the mapping of the zone began in 1985—more than 8,000 square miles. But recently, scientists reported that the area is only about 40 percent of its average size. That doesn't mean that it is no longer an issue. "Although the area is small this year, we should not think that the low-oxygen problem in the Gulf of Mexico is solved," Nancy Rabalais, a marine ecologist at Louisiana State University and the lead scientist of the study, told The Associated Press. "We are not close to the goal size for this hypoxic area."

Nearly half (45 percent) of the Earth's landmass is being farmed by the global industrial livestock system, which includes both the animals killed for human consumption and the crops used to feed those animals. The current human population, 7.6 billion, is expected to swell to 9.8 billion by the year 2050. And if most of them will be meat-eaters, the negative impact of the meat industry on marine ecosystems and coastal communities, if not addressed soon, will surely get worse. According to NASA, "The number and size of ocean dead zones is closely connected to human population density." It's basic math: More people means more meat-eaters, and more meat production means more and bigger dead zones.

Red circles show the location and size of many dead zones. Black dots show dead zones of unknown size. The size and number of marine dead zones—areas where the deep water is so low in dissolved oxygen that sea creatures can't survive—have grown explosively in the past half-century.NASA Earth Observatory, 2008

More Pathogens, More Pollutants, Less Profit

Dead zones could also introduce a host of public and animal health issues. Boesch points out that "various pathogenic microorganisms can thrive" in hypoxic areas. A 2012 study published in FEMS Microbiology Ecology discovered "sequences affiliated with Clostridium," a human pathogen that causes botulism and diarrhea, in the hypoxic zone of China's Lake Taihu. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warns that algal blooms contain cyanobacteria, "which are poisonous to humans and deadly to livestock and pets."

Renee Dufault is a former environmental health officer for the National Institutes of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, as well as the founder of the Food Ingredient and Health Research Institute. Dufault told the Independent Media Institute that the antibiotics and hormones injected into animals raised for food "are pollutants themselves when they are released from manure via surface water runoff into streams that may be used as drinking water supplies."

Dead zones also have economic impacts that harm local communities. The NOAA estimates that marine dead zones cost the U.S. food and tourism industries $82 million every year.

Risky Business: Eating Meat

The main source of water contamination in the U.S. is the manure and fertilizer coming from industrial farms that grow feed to raise animals to be killed for human consumption.

The production of meat isn't just one of the most polluting of all human activities, contaminating waterways and driving the growth of dead zones across the world; it's literally bulldozing the planet's landscape. By converting rainforests and prairies into industrial farms, large-scale meat producers are responsible for the widespread destruction of many of the planet's native ecosystems, which threatens wildlife by destroying native habitats and releases stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further exacerbating climate change. Animals raised for food produce 42 percent of agricultural emissions in the U.S. Two-thirds of those gases are emitted directly by those animals in the form of belches and farts. And the majority of those emissions—around 44 percent—is methane, a greenhouse gas that is 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

A report released in July by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy offers some perspective: The top five meat and dairy companies, including Tyson and Cargill, emit more greenhouse gases combined than ExxonMobil, Shell or BP.

This NASA satellite image shows deforestation in the state of Rondonia in western Brazil, where land has been converted for cattle farming. In 2017, Brazil exported 1.3 million metric tons of beef to the United States, worth $6.2 billion.NASA

A Few Bright Spots

The Mighty Earth report does note a few positive developments. Of the sectors studied, the food service industry that caters meals to universities and hospitals "is doing the most to promote plant-based diets, with Aramark reporting that 30 percent of its menus offer non-meat options and Sodexo reducing beef consumption through its mushroom-blended burger initiative." And McDonald's states that it is moving toward 100 percent sustainably certified soy by 2020 to feed the chickens it sources in Europe. (Unfortunately, that requirement isn't in place for U.S. suppliers.)

"Bright spots were few and far between," the report states, "but indicate that awareness is growing and improvements are possible."

Possible, yes. But probable? The food industry has shown a reluctance to enact sustainable practices, but has sometimes responded to consumer demand for change. "Many of these companies have set requirements for meat suppliers to improve practices around animal welfare and antibiotic overuse when the public pressured them to do so," Mighty Earth campaign director Lucia von Reusner told the Independent Media Institute. Her organization is hoping that their report will help raise public awareness, and that in turn will spur change within the industry.

"The public is now waking up to the industry's polluting practices and demanding improvements," she said.

Reforming the Meat Industry

One of the biggest misperceptions that the general public has about dead zones, says Boesch, is that "there is nothing we can do about them." He points out that, "although experience in other parts of the world shows that while it may take years for the excess nutrients to wash out of the watershed and [be] purged from bottom sediments, we can eventually breathe life back into dead zones if we reduce nutrient pollution. We are now seeing the dead zone in the Chesapeake gradually becoming less severe and smaller."

The Mighty Earth report recommends that meat producers start employing better farming practices to help curtail the destruction. One way to reduce the need of fertilizers on crops used to feed livestock, for example, is to use cover crops, which involves planting certain species on fields that can suffocate weeds, control pests and diseases, reduce soil erosion, improve soil health, boost water availability and increase biodiversity—all of which would benefit any farm. Mighty Earth also recommends that meat producers employ better fertilizer management, conserve native vegetation and centralize manure processing.

"The environmental damage caused by the meat industry is driving some of the most urgent threats to the future of our food system—from contaminated waters to depleted soils and a destabilized climate," von Reusner said. "More sustainable farming practices are urgently needed if we are going to feed a growing population on a planet of finite resources."

Map of nitrate levels by watersheds, 2016 overlaid with Tyson and top feed supplier facilities (View Larger Map)

Unfortunately, there is little that the federal government is doing on this front. "Runoff pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from producing meat are largely unregulated in the US," von Reusner notes. "There need to be much stronger regulations that protect our waters and climate from the meat industry's pollution."

Boesch notes that an action plan agreed upon in 2001 by the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force was meant to scale down the amount of nutrient pollution in the Gulf by 30 percent. But, he says the plan "lacks teeth." Consequently, he said, "not only has the Gulf's dead zone not shrunk, but the concentrations of polluting nutrients in the Mississippi River have not declined—and may have even increased."

In the meantime, polluting the Gulf with meat production runoff continues apace. The 2001 federal and state action plan, which was reaffirmed and amended in 2008, hasn't achieved its goal to reduce the hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. NOAA scientists have forecasted this summer's dead zone to be "similar to the 33-year average Gulf dead zone of 5,460 square miles," which the agency points out is about the size of Connecticut. "This should be getting more attention by regulators, lawmakers and industry," said Boesch. "Unfortunately, the industry has worked with politicians to prevent regulations."

He notes that the plan to revive the Chesapeake Bay has each state "allocated a certain amount of reduction in nutrient pollution and is under a legally binding agreement under the Clean Water Act to accomplish this by 2025." But there is no such legal force when it comes to the Mississippi Basin states that are polluting the Gulf. Those states, says Boesch, "have never even been assigned an amount of pollution reduction for which they are responsible, much less been bound to it. The states have resisted even this first step in accepting responsibility. All efforts are strictly voluntary. So, there can be little wonder why, despite the commitment to reduce the size of the dead zone by two-thirds, there has been virtually no reduction in polluting nutrients discharged by the river after 17 years."

While reforming the meat industry's unsustainable practices is a way to stop the spread of dead zones, change from within isn't coming quickly enough. That's where consumers can play a vital role, says von Reusner. "Consumers need to demand that their favorite food companies provide more sustainable options by requiring more sustainable farming practices from meat suppliers."

Reynard Loki is a senior writing fellow and the editor and chief correspondent for Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

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