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Tyson Foods Linked to Largest Toxic Dead Zone in U.S. History

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Less oxygen dissolved in the water is often referred to as a "dead zone" (in red above) because most marine life either dies, or, if they are mobile such as fish, leave the area. Habitats that would normally be teeming with life become, essentially, biological deserts. NOAA

By Shana Gallagher

What comes to mind when you think of Tyson Foods? A chicken nugget? A big red logo?

How about the largest toxic dead zone in U.S. history? It turns out the meat industry—and corporate giants like Tyson Foods—are directly linked to this environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, and many others.


Industrial-scale agriculture to support America's livestock is the number one source of water pollution in the country. But while industrial agriculture to feed animals raised for meat is currently resource-intensive and ecologically destructive, it doesn't have to be. Solutions exist which, if adopted, would allow the meat industry and agricultural corporations that sustain it to reduce their impact on water and the planet.

That's why Mighty Earth has launched the Clean It Up, Tyson campaign in order to hold this industry accountable to our communities and the environment. Corporations can and should respect the health and well-being of their customers, and the landscapes that allow them to profit. Considering America's current political climate, and the increasing severity of environmental problems across the globe, collective action and corporate-targeted campaigns like this one have never been more urgent.

Soil erosion and agricultural run-off is currently America's top source of water pollution.Mighty Earth

In a country with five times as many livestock animals as humans, it takes a lot of land to grow feed for the meat that ends up on consumers' plates. More than a third of America's agricultural land is dedicated towards the production of corn and soy, but humans consume less than 10 percent of this, according to Mighty Earth's campaign report. The vast majority is consumed by livestock.

What many people don't realize is that this livestock feed production is controlled by a very small number of large and powerful corporations, making huge upstream profits, but creating massive downstream pollution. These companies—ADM, Bunge, Cargill (often referred to as the ABCs)—don't have much of a public reputation, as they don't sell directly to individual consumers. Under our current regulatory system, they're also not responsible for their run-off or excess fertilizer use, both of which are classified as "non-point source" pollution. In other words, soil erosion and run-off from enormous swaths of America's crop fields are washing into the waterways, and taxpayers shoulder the burden. These two factors mean that industrial agriculture companies operate with impunity while polluting the land, rivers and oceans.

How animal feed moves through the meat supply chainMighty Earth

A recent report by Environmental Working Group found that more than 200 million Americans—more than half of the people in our country—are exposed to contaminated drinking water due to fertilizer pollution. The estimated clean water costs to taxpayers are more than $2 billion per year. The nitrate and phosphorous in fertilizer that leaches into our drinking water are associated with various types of cancers, birth defects and other health problems. This burden disproportionately falls on rural communities, whose water treatment systems were not built to deal with the levels of chemicals they're now facing.

"The EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) ordered Pretty Prairie, Kansas, to build a new water treatment plant last year to lower nitrate levels that could cost $2.4 million—well over $3,000 for every person in town," EWG reported. "Eighty-five percent or more of the communities with elevated levels of nitrate have no treatment systems in place to remove the contaminant."

Another alarming characteristic of industrial agriculture is that because it's so intensive, fields are quickly exhausted, and the industry must continuously expand to new areas. For this reason, the American prairie and grassland ecosystems are being altered faster than the Amazon rainforest.

A recent University of Wisconsin study estimated that this loss of natural grassland "could have emitted as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as 34 coal-fired power plants operating for one year—the equivalent of 28 million more cars on the road," noted Mighty Earth. These unique landscapes are among the most threatened in the world, and are irreversibly damaged after conversion into crop fields, often to grow corn and soy. At a time in our country when public lands are being attacked from many angles, industrial-scale agriculture to support the meat industry is the biggest challenge these ecosystems face.

Polluted run-off from manure and chemical fertilizer causes toxic algae outbreaks in lakes and rivers across the country, contaminating drinking water, killing marine life and endangering public health.Mighty Earth

Luckily, there are a number of simple, cheap and effective ways in which the meat industry could adopt sustainability measures into supply chains to and protect clean water. For example, currently less than 30 percent of fertilizer applied to massive industrial-scale crop fields is actually absorbed by the plants. Instead, most of this washes off as fertilizer pollution and contaminates waterways.

This is what has caused the largest dead zone in U.S. history in the Gulf of Mexico. It is currently more than 8,000 square miles, where no marine life can survive due to toxic fertilizer pollution. By using more precise application methods, farmers could save money on fertilizer, and less of it would contaminate the water. Additionally, techniques like using cover crops, diversifying crops beyond corn and soy, and limiting tillage are proven ways to reduce soil erosion.

A farmer sprays liquid urea ammonium nitrate fertilizer to pre-emergent crops. P177 / Flickr

A few months ago, Mighty Earth conducted a comprehensive study into which areas of America are experiencing the worst water contamination from fertilizer pollution (Figure 1), and the most dramatic land conversion into livestock feed crop fields (Figure 2). This groundbreaking research also identified the agricultural and meat industry corporations most present in these areas. The clear culprit driving these destructive agricultural impacts was identified: Tyson Foods.

The country's largest meat company, the second largest globally and the pioneer of the industrial meat system, Tyson Foods produces one in every five pounds of meat: more than 20 percent of all chicken, beef and pork. They are therefore uniquely placed to drive solutions, incentivize their suppliers to farm more responsibly, and reduce the catastrophic effects that industrial-scale agriculture has on the environment and public health.

Figure 1. Nitrate levels by watershed, 2016 overlaid with Tyson and top feed supplier facilitiesMighty Earth

Figure 2: Grassland conversion by county, 2016 overlaid with Tyson and top feed supplier facilitiesMighty Earth

"Recent commitments from a growing number of food companies like Kellogg's, General Mills, Walmart, PepsiCo, and even Tyson's competitor, Smithfield, are showing the way forward," reported Mighty Earth. "These companies have committed to improve fertilizer and soil-health practices in their U.S. crop supply chains and have launched programs and practices that Tyson and other meat producers can adopt to drive improvements in their supply chains."

Tyson Foods has the power to make these changes too, and therefore to change the entire meat industry for the better—and we have the power to ask them to do it.

Tyson's prior commitments to sustainability are admirable, but don't go far enough. With the demand for meat rising, and the threats to our environment increasing, the stakes could not be higher.

This issue affects all of us. As far back as 2013, the majority of American waterways were contaminated by fertilizer pollution, according to the EPA. That's why Mighty Earth is organizing in communities across the country to ask Tyson to protect our water and our environment. By signing the petition or making a call to Tyson's corporate headquarters (you can use our calling script for pointers), you can add your voice to the rising chorus calling for cleaner meat. Tyson Foods must lead the way to a more sustainable food system and protect the one planet we have.

Shana Gallagher is one of seven organizers around the U.S. launching Mighty Earth's #CleanItUpTyson campaign.

Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.

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Brazilians living in The Netherlands organized a demonstration in solidarity with rainforest protectors and against the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 1 in The Hague, Netherlands. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Tara Smith

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.

Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.

Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.

From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.

Historical Precedent

Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.

Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.

Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?

Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.

When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.

The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.

The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.

But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.

Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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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