Tyson Foods recently released its 2019 Sustainability Report, Grow-Deliver-Sustain, to demonstrate its achievements across five core categories: environmental impact, animal welfare, food safety and innovation, workplace conditions, and community support. Citing progressive initiatives and highlighting innovative partnerships, the purpose of the report is to showcase Tyson Foods as an overall “good” company with a culture of transparency and collaboration. Noel White, the Chief Executive Officer of Tyson Foods, states that the company’s “commitments are unwavering—to keep our people safe, to be good stewards of animals and resources, and to advance sustainability to serve our customers.” Belying such do-good language is the meat conglomerate’s many actions that routinely inflict large-scale, grievous harm on animals, humans, and ecosystems.
Tyson Foods claims that its approach to animal welfare is one of “compassionate care based in sound science,” while downplaying its killing of animals and consumption of natural resources. Last year, across its 200 worldwide facilities, Tyson Foods weekly slaughtered 155,000 cows, 461,000 pigs, and 45 million chickens—totaling 2.4 billion animals in a single year. The company used approximately 15 trillion gallons of drinkable water—equivalent to one-eighth of the water in Lake Erie—to raise and kill this number of animals in 2019. The land required for grazing these animals and growing their feed is about 149 million acres; if this land was its own district, it would be the third-largest U.S. state and larger than California. Such staggering statistics reveal a deeply unjust and clearly untenable system of food production, contrary to the sustainability report’s claims.
As the largest meat processor and second-largest food company in the U.S., Tyson Foods has the power and capacity to do immense good. Last year, Tyson accrued $42.4 billion in revenue with a net profit of $2 billion. It produced fully one-fifth of the nation’s beef, pork, and chicken. By diversifying its portfolio and replacing animal meat with plant-based versions, Tyson could dramatically reduce the number of farmed animals bred for exploitation and the associated environmental impact. Replacing just 20 percent of its annual beef production with plant-based options would result in Tyson preventing the slaughter of 1.4 million cows. Considering that 1,847 gallons of water and 260 square feet of land are used to produce one pound of beef, and that a single cow emits about 13,320 kilograms of greenhouse gas emissions annually, a one-fifth reduction in Tyson’s beef production for a single year would save over 500 billion gallons of water and eliminate the need to deforest nearly two million acres of land. Such a reduction in beef production would reduce the company’s annual emissions by 18 million tons, therefore enabling Tyson to make meaningful progress toward its stated goal of lowering its generation of greenhouse gasses by 30 percent within the next 10 years. This reduction scenario demonstrates that even a minor transition to plant-based products would result in Tyson’s business becoming much more sustainable.
A key tenet of Tyson Foods’ 2019 Sustainability Report is its commitment to providing cleaner, safer, and better working conditions for its team members. Plant-based food production facilities, unlike meat-processing plants, are not riddled with zoonotic pathogens. During this pandemic, no plant-based facilities have become coronavirus hotbeds; by comparison, nearly 40 meatpacking plants in the U.S. have temporarily closed due to widespread infection among workers. Bruce Friedrich, founder of the plant-based trade group Good Food Institute (GFI), told The Washington Post that plant-based facilities are “significantly more automated and it’s easier to socially distance because there’s no chopping up carcasses to create the cuts of meat.” Tyson can demonstrate that it is sincere in its mission to feed the world while respecting its workers’ safety and livelihoods by focusing more of its business on producing animal-free sources of food.
Tyson Foods has already taken steps to enter the plant-based protein market, although its actions to date do not signify a meaningful transition away from animal-based food production. Last year, Tyson Foods launched a new brand, Raised & Rooted, which features “plant-based and blended products.” The brand does not offer any strictly plant-based products; the vegetarian chicken nuggets contain egg whites (but no animal flesh) and the “blended” burger patties consist of a mixture of beef and pea protein. In connection with the brand’s launch, CEO Noel White said, “We remain firmly committed to our growing traditional [animal] meat business and expect to be a market leader in alternative protein, which is experiencing double-digit growth and could someday be a billion-dollar business for our company.” This message was underscored by the Chief Financial Officer of Tyson Ventures, who rejected the “idea that it has to be binary, that meat has to go down and plant-based has to go up” at a conference hosted by GFI. Tyson’s executives have made clear that the company aspires to also participate in the alternative protein market by expanding its existing offerings, rather than significantly transitioning away from animal agriculture.
Beyond establishing an in-house “plant-based” brand, Tyson Foods is also investing in other alternative protein companies. In 2016, the company created Tyson Ventures for the purpose of investing in food and agricultural startup companies whose “disruptive products and breakthrough technologies [are] related to [Tyson’s] businesses.” A handful of these startup companies in which Tyson Ventures has invested, including Beyond Meat, New Wave Foods, Memphis Meats, and MycoTechnology, are developing plant-based and lab-grown meats. Tyson Ventures holds only minority-stake investments in these companies; in the case of Beyond Meat, Tyson temporarily held a 6.5 percent ownership stake, which it sold at the onset of launching Raised & Rooted. Tyson Foods has yet to make substantial progress with developing its own strictly plant-based alternatives, although its external investments are helping to usher in an era of alternative meat.
Tyson Foods remains largely committed to animal-based food production, although it is clearly aware that consumer demand for plant-based alternatives is rising. America still retains its position as the world’s largest per-capita meat consumer, while the U.S. market for plant-based meat is expected to grow from $4.6 billion in annual sales in 2018 to $85 billion in annual sales in 2030. The COVID-19 pandemic is hastening the growth of plant-based food sales, which increased by 264 percent during a nine-week period from the beginning of March to early May of this year. For animal meat, the growth in sales was only 45 percent during the same nine-week period. “Panic-buying” and perceptions of meat shortages contributed to these dramatic percentage increases, both for animal and plant-based foods; the much greater increase in plant-based food sales is partially attributed to the animal origins of COVID-19 turning some consumers away from animal products, along with the health benefits of plant foods, which bolster immune systems to help combat the virus. As consumers are increasingly gravitating toward plant-based foods, major meat conglomerates like Tyson can and should do the same.
This year marks Tyson Foods’ 85th anniversary. As John Tyson, Chairman of the Board, pledges to “continue to bring new ideas to the table, solve new problems, and create new opportunities,” the company has an opportunity to meaningfully transition to plant-based food production. Doing so would fulfill the company’s stated commitments to sustainability. Plant-based food companies are more resilient, less resource-intensive, and less susceptible to public health crises; plant-based foods also directly benefit consumers without harming workers, animals, or ecosystems. In an industry where exploitation is the norm, transitioning to plant-based food production is the only ethical and sustainable thing for companies like Tyson Foods to do.
Malina Tran is a software engineer based in Los Angeles, California. She is a Writing Fellow with Sentient Media, a nonprofit organization that advocates for animal rights. Her areas of focus include animal welfare, activism, culture, and identity.