Thanks to toxins from meat industry factories, the Gulf of Mexico is set to experience its greatest dead zone of all time. The meat industry, which is also a large contributor to global warming and deforestation, has one more deadly side effect to add to its business report.
What is a Dead Zone?
A dead zone occurs when nutrients flow into a stream, river or ocean from agriculture and wastewater. These added nutrients then stimulate an overgrowth of algae which decomposes in the water. This decomposed algae results in hypoxia - it essentially suffocates living beings in the water by not allowing enough oxygen to pass. Marine life in the dead zone are then forced to flee. If they aren’t able to flee in time, they will die.
The intense algal blooms can also have other negative effects. Marine animals like shrimp suffer from stunted growth under the attack of an algal bloom. And the blooms create a odorous green slime that cause many beaches in Florida to close last summer.
What’s Happening in the Gulf of Mexico?
A dead zone, like that described above, is currently underway in the Gulf of Mexico. Toxins are entering the water thanks to manure and fertilizer being dropped into the waterways. Algal blooms are occurring in large stretches of the gulf, the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. The largest ever recorded dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is set to be almost 8200 square miles - approximately the size of New Jersey. After a report by Mighty, an environment group, about the state of the dead zone, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expected to confirm the record breaking dead zone in the coming weeks.
Why is the Meat Industry to Blame?
The report by Mighty points the finger at the meat industry for the gulf’s record breaking dead zone. The report found that a small number of meat industry businesses are contaminating the water through their unsafe practices.
Lucia von Reusner, campaign director at Mighty, explained, “This problem is worsening and worsening and regulation isn’t reducing the scope of this pollution. These companies’ practices need to be far more sustainable. And a reduction in meat consumption is absolutely necessary to reduce the environmental burden.”
The report found that large areas of grassland in the midwest were being converted into soy and corn fields in order to feed livestock. These fields create stripped soils, which can easily wash away in the rain and cause fertilizer to end up in the waterways.
The report called out Tyson Foods, an Arkansas-based leader in the meat industry, due to their dominance in the industry and unsafe practices. Tyson Foods supplies meat to big name businesses like McDonald’s and Walmart. They slaughter 35 million chickens and 125,000 cattle every week. They require 5 million acres of corn to feed their livestock.
Last year, Tyson created 55 million tons of manure. They are also responsible for dumping 104 million tons of pollutants in waterways over the last 10 years. The Mighty report found that the highest levels of nitrate contamination were located by Tyson facilities. Nitrate contamination has also been linked to unsafe drinking water, in addition to algal blooms and dead zones.
What is the Future of the Meat Industry?
Unfortunately, given the United States’ consumption patterns, the meat industry isn’t going anywhere fast. The average American eats 211 lbs of meat per year. This number is actually one fifth lower than 2005 rates, but the US Department of Agriculture expects the meat industry to grow over the next ten years. They predict this growth because of the low cost of livestock feed and steady demand for meat. They predict the average amount of meat consumed by an American in 2025 will be 219 lbs.
Unfortunately, this demand for meat is directly responsible for an increase in global warming, deforestation and dead zones in our waterways. Only 3% of Americans follow a vegan or vegetarian diet. 9% of greenhouse gas emissions created in the United States in 2015 are attributed to agriculture.
What’s the Solution?
The report by Mighty calls on large companies, like Tyson, to use their pull with their supply chain to ensure producers are reducing their pollution into waterways. Both Tyson and Cargill, a grain producer, released statements reiterating their commitment to sustainable practices and protecting the environment. But actions speak louder than words.