A few months ago, we published a piece about a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. At face value, it isn’t anything new–it’s been happening every year for decades. What is new, however, is the predicted size of the dead zone this year. The NOAA did their yearly examination and came up with a staggering figure: an increase in size of 57%. While it’s long been known that it’s caused by agricultural runoff, the meat industry has come under fire this year.
The dead zone is already huge. On average, it’s about 5,000 square miles, which, for scale, is a little bit bigger than Connecticut. This year, it looks like it’ll be somewhere around 8,000 square miles. That’s bigger than Massachusetts, if we’re using states as measuring sticks.
It’s long been known that the way the meat industry feeds the insatiable American public’s lust for meat–poultry, beef, and pork, mostly–is pretty fucking toxic to the environment. According to Mighty, the environmental group that looked into what, exactly, is causing the increase in the size of the dead zone this year, the average American ate 211 pounds of meat in 2015. The CDC put the average American male at 195 pounds. Just a bunch of gluttons eating more than our weight in meat every year.
The fertilizer-laden runoff from vast cattle ranches inevitably makes its way into the waterways and, eventually, into the Gulf. Once there, the fertilizer continues to do what it does: fertilize. Only now, it fertilizes algal blooms, which occur naturally. When algae are given a massive dose of nitrogen and phosphorus, however, it flourishes.
“Phytoplankton, those tiny little creatures that are vastly important to the general health of the ocean, gorge on them,” I wrote back in June. “Their population explodes. You’d think, though, that larger populations of phytoplankton would be good–more food from the bottom of the food chain should lead to a sort of trickle UP effect–but you’d be wrong. Instead, the numbers are so high that huge chunks of the phytoplankton population die off, sinking to the bottom where the even tinier creatures that break them down use up way more dissolved oxygen than they should. That leads to oxygen-starved swathes of ocean where larger creatures can’t live, which, of course, is a dead zone.”
Mighty’s report looked at the supply chains and pollution trends of agribusiness. Since all that livestock we’re shoving down our throats needs to eat, enormous chunks of America’s native grasslands are ripped up to plant things like corn and soy. All that soil gets washed away when it rains, dragging fertilizer with it.
“This problem is worsening and worsening and regulation isn’t reducing the scope of this pollution,” said Lucia von Reusner, campaign director at Mighty. “These companies’ practices need to be far more sustainable. And a reduction in meat consumption is absolutely necessary to reduce the environmental burden.”
So which companies are the worst offenders? Well, according to Mighty, one stands out above the rest. Tyson Foods, an Arkansas-based agribusiness, supplies huge chains like McDonald’s. According to The Guardian and Mighty, each week Tyson Foods slaughters 35 million chickens and 125,000 head of cattle. All those animals require a shit-load of food, and that food needs about 5 million acres to grow.
All that food turns into nearly 60 million tons of manure per annum. “The Mighty research found that the highest levels of nitrate contamination correlate with clusters of facilities operated by Tyson and Smithfield, another meat supplier,” wrote Oliver Milman for The Guardian.
There are, however, things that can be done–it’s just that they aren’t being done because they’re a pain in the ass for giant corporations. That was a large part of what the EPA kept an eye on–but now that the EPA is headed up by a man who has sued it a dozen times and is slowly being dismantled to make things easier for Big Agriculture, dumping toxic shit all over the place is going to get a whole lot easier.
“According to the US Department of Agriculture, beef and pork production is forecast to grow significantly over the next decade, driven by lower feed costs and healthy demand,” Milman continued. “By 2025, the average American is expected to eat 219lbs of meat a year. Just 3% of Americans follow a vegetarian or vegan diet.”
None of this should be taken as a call to become vegetarian or vegan. I eat meat–not a lot, but I do, and it is delicious. But when the amount of meat we’re eating is underscored by enormous companies puking toxic filth into our waterways, perhaps it’s time we rethink how we’re getting our meat.