Mighty Earth, an environmental action group based in Washington, D.C., recently launched the Clean It Up, Tyson campaign, which seeks to hold Tyson Foods accountable for soil degradation and water pollution in Middle America waterways and the Gulf of Mexico. A report by Mighty Earth found that Tyson’s supply chain, or the crops grown to feed Tyson’s livestock, dumped significant amounts of manure and fertilizer into surrounding waterways, increasing nitrate levels in the water, which contaminates the water supply and can cause dead zones. The Clean It Up, Tyson campaign seeks to hold Tyson accountable to cleaning up this pollution.
Food Tank spoke with Lucia von Reusner, Campaign Director for Mighty Earth, about the Clean It Up, Tyson campaign:
Food Tank (FT): What inspired the Clean It Up, Tyson Campaign?
Lucia von Reusner (LVR): Public and scientific awareness about the environmental consequences affiliated with meat production is growing. Here in the United States, the meat industry is the single largest source of water pollution and is the driver behind the largest dead zone on record in the Gulf of Mexico. At the same time, people are really passionate about food, where it comes from, how it was produced, and are looking for more sustainable options. The large meat companies that dominate our food supply chain have the influence and leverage to quickly adopt practices more in line with public’s demand for sustainably produced meat.
FT: What do you hope the outcome will be of the Clean It Up, Tyson Campaign?
LVR: We hope to see major meat companies move in response to public concern on issues ranging from antibiotics in meat, animal welfare, worker rights, and safety. We want to see the largest meat companies, together with their feed providers, in the United States adopt better agricultural practices that keep pollution out of our water, prevent soil erosion, and improve standards across the supply chain. The major focus of our campaign is really on the vast quantities of feed grown to raise meat. We want to see meat companies require that their feed suppliers have practices in place that would reduce water pollution, native ecosystem loss, and climate pollution. These practices include fertilizer optimization, cover-cropping, conservation tillage, protection of native ecosystems, and better manure management.
FT: So far, what have been the campaign’s biggest successes?
LVR: It’s been really fascinating and inspiring to see the public response to our campaign. We’ve placed environmental organizers across the heartland and gulf states, those most heavily impacted by agricultural runoff pollution. These are parts of the country have been traditionally considered very rural and conservative and have not always been the most receptive to environmental issues, but it was very clear that water pollution is an urgent issue to the public there. They want to see some action! We’ve recruited hundreds of thousands of Americans to join our campaign, including farmers, fishers, environmental groups, and public health groups. As a result of public pressure, a group of responsible shareholders filed a proposal at Tyson pushing them to address the risks of water pollution driven by their supply chain. That shareholder proposal received support from 63 percent of non-Tyson family shareholders! A few months later, Tyson announced a public commitment to improving farm impacts on two million acres of land used for feed production. We are still waiting to see the actual details of the commitment to get a better sense of its impacts.
FT: What can individuals do to promote sustainable meat production?
LVR: Reducing red meat consumption is one of the biggest ways an individual can reduce their environmental impact. Seeking out plant-based options wherever possible is another major step. It is also important to pressure the large meat companies that control our supply chain, like McDonalds, Chipotle, Tyson, and Subway. These companies have great potential to improve the supply chain if they were to adopt better standards.
FT: What are some policy solutions to promote sustainable meat production?
LVR: The reason that we launched this campaign is because, unfortunately, the government has largely failed to act over the past couple decades to regulate agricultural pollutants and their impact on the environment—which is why we are looking to large companies to take action above and beyond what the government requires. We definitely want to see government step in and regulate certain areas, from reducing agricultural runoff into waterways to increasing conservation incentives for landowners.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.