NEW ORLEANS (CN) — Drinking water for more than 324,000 Louisianans is contaminated with carcinogenic chemicals from agricultural runoff from meat-producing farms as far away as the Midwest, and a panel of experts Thursday called on Tyson Foods, the largest meat producer in the nation, to do something to stop it.
Chemicals from the agricultural runoff flow into the Gulf of Mexico and create an annual dead zone the size of New Jersey and growing. The panel called on Tyson to hurry up and switch to the sustainable practices its new CEO Tom Hayes promised to adopt to stop the health dangers and environmental destruction.
The Thursday panel was part of a national campaign to hold Springdale, Arkansas-based meat giant responsible for the environmental harm it has caused.
Tyson, the country’s largest processor of chicken, beef and pork, has more than 115,000 employees and 6,700 independent chicken contractors, according to publicly available information. Ninety of its 300 processing plants are in the United States. It reported $41.4 billion in revenue in 2014.
Mighty Earth, a coalition of 31 Louisiana businesses, farmers and community groups, with a combined membership of 13,000, sponsored the Thursday night event with the Gulf Restoration Network.
The nonprofit network released a report this summer showing that Tyson is a major cause of the dead zone.
Toxins from fertilizer and manure that pour into the Mississippi River from the farms throughout America’s heartland eventually dump into the Gulf of Mexico, where they feed toxic algae blooms that suck up the oxygen, creating hypoxia, or strangulation of life.
The hypoxic area, or dead zone, is created every year and peaks in size in July.
Last year alone 1.15 million metric tons of nitrogen pollutants from Midwest agricultural runoff flowed into the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River, according to the report by Mighty Earth, an environmental group led by former Congressman Henry Waxman.
That is roughly 170 percent more pollution than was caused by the 2010 BP oil spill.
“The meat industry sets the standards for feed production,” Mighty Earth organizer Audrey Beedle said during the panel discussion. She said that due to its size Tyson has great influence in the industry and its practices.
“A few simple solutions can improve feed production and reduce pollution,” Beedle said. Among the suggestions from the panel were growing crops other than water-hungry soybeans and corn, as are primarily grown now, and using crop covers to prevent fertilizer and pesticides from washing into tributaries of the Mississippi River.
“We shouldn’t have to choose between good food and clean water,” Beedle said.
She encouraged thinking about where holiday meals come from and choosing ingredients raised in environments that foster sustainable practices.
“The goal here is to change the way meat is produced. This is not anti-Tyson. This is not anti-corporate. Tyson has said they want their practice to be sustainable. We are encouraging them to hold to that,” Gulf Restoration Network panelist Matt Rota said.
Nitrate contamination in drinking water from agricultural runoff is prevalent throughout the United States. Nitrates have been linked to Alzheimer’s and possibly to diabetes and Parkinson’s disease and several possible cancers, panelists said.
“It is the number one pollution problem around the country and Tyson is in a good position to do something about it,” Rota said.
“The dead zone has always been a hard issue because it’s out of sight out of mind … if you’re not going out in boats, if you’re not pulling up empty nets,” he added.
Rota said he has been an environmental advocate in the Deep South for most of his life.
“We’ve tried to work with other states to get them to step up their game and self-regulate the amount of fertilizer they are dumping annually into the Mississippi River and they haven’t done it,” he said.
He expects that the Trump administration will ignore this issue.
“I wish I could say the last administration did more, but they did not. We had to sue them and fight them tooth and nail,” Rota added.
Far from depressing, Rota said, he sees it as encouraging because there is so much progress that can be made.
“Tyson wants to be seen as a family-oriented and kind organization, so we’re going after that,” Rota said.
“The meat industry is the linchpin. … Whatever motivates them to clean up. If it cleans up our water, great.”
Dylan Maisel, a New Orleans business owner, told the panel: “If we ask companies for something sustainable, that’s what they are going to give us. If we don’t, they won’t.”
Maisel said farmers need to move away from soy and corn production for feed because it uses too much water.
“It takes way too much water to produce meat the way we do,” he said.
Clear-cutting forests for cattle feed production and cattle in Brazil and Central America has removed billions of trees from Earth, contributing to global warming.
Maisel said the government has to stop subsidizing corn production.
“We subsidize corn and it ends up contributing to the dead zone,” Maisel said.
Panelist Acy Cooper of the Louisiana Shrimp Association said the whole nation enjoys seafood harvested in the Gulf of Mexico and the whole nation should be alarmed by the level of contamination in the Gulf.
” If we don’t have seafood, where are you going to get it? Thailand?” Cooper asked.
“The same water that comes down the Mississippi goes into our tributaries and contaminates the fish.”
Cooper said in an interview later that in an ordinary year 100 million pounds of shrimp are taken from Louisiana. This year the numbers have been way down, to 60 million to 70 million pounds.
“It’s either the [2010 BP] oil spill or the dead zone. It’s either one or the other,” Cooper said.
He said that after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill off the Alaskan coast it took five to seven years to see a real impact in sea life.
“You can’t just keep contaminating everything and expect it all to be OK, and it’s not just Tyson, it’s everyone,” Cooper said.
He hoped the panel would help put Tyson in the hot seat.
“You’re not exactly stealing anything, but you’ve been found out and now you have to stop,” he said, addressing Tyson. “Now everyone knows you’re killing everything in sight and you have to stop.”
Tyson did not reply to an emailed request for comment Thursday afternoon. The company told Courthouse News in October that Mighty Earth was “making misleading claims about our company, which is committed to continuous environmental improvement. Their focus is pollution from crop production, but they overlook the many ways crops are used, including human consumption and biofuel.
“We believe real change on this issue requires a broad coalition of stakeholders, not just one company. We’re collaborating with a variety of stakeholders, including public interest groups and trade associations, to promote continuous improvement in how we and our suppliers operate.”
The Thursday panel was well-attended by people of all ages, in the Urban South brewery on Tchoupitoulas Street, a warehouse in an up and coming area in an industrial section by the Mississippi. A portion of the beer sales went to the Gulf Restoration Network.
Rota said he kept at his work “because I know we can win. I know we can make things better.”
He said a big win would be to put a dent in the size of the dead zone, though in his 12 years with the Gulf Restoration Network, it has only increased in size. “But we will put a dent in it,” he said. “And even the small wins are really important.”