Ask a Scientist: Taking a Holistic Look at Big Ag

April 13, 2022 | 10:00 am
Aerial view of a tractor towing an applicator is spraying liquid nitrogen fertilizer on a late Spring corn field. The left field and behind the spreader is wet with darker soil. Shot from the open window of a small plane.BanksPhotos/iStock
Elliott Negin
Senior Writer

UCS Food and Environment Program Research DirectorMarcia DeLongeand Senior StrategistKaren Perry Stillermanrecently posted ananalysisestimating how much land Tyson Foods—the nation’s largest meat and poultry processor—relied on to produce corn and soybeans to feed the 6 million cows, 22 million pigs, and nearly 2 billion chickens it processed in 2020.

Their estimate was eye-popping: The company’s “feed footprint” takes up 9 million to 10 million acres—about twice the size of New Jersey. With indirect control over so much farmland, Tyson has an opportunity—and the responsibility—to ensure that that land is farmed sustainably. As UCS has previously pointed out, today’s industrial corn and soybean farming practices tend to erode the soil, pollute drinking water supplies, fuel coastal dead zones, and leave farms and surrounding communities more vulnerable to climate change-related drought and flooding.

Four years ago, Tysonpledgedto improve the environmental practices on 2 million acres of corn by the end of 2020. It fell woefully short. Last June, the companyreportedthat it set up a sustainability pilot program for only 408,000 acres. The company said it plans to meet its 2-million-acre target by 2025, but even if it accomplished that goal, it would still leave more than 7 million acres to go.

DeLonge and Stillerman’s analysis,Tyson’s Need for Feed, was a follow-up to an August 2021studyby their colleague, economist Rebecca Boehm, who left UCS recently to study these issues at the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Office of the Chief Economist. Boehm’s UCS analysis showed how Tyson consolidated its grip on the poultry industry in its home state of Arkansas over the last 40 years, to the detriment of processing plant workers, chicken farmers, and the health and well-being of neighboring communities. Along the way, she explained some basic economics concepts, such as the relatively well-known terms monopoly and oligopoly—when one or a just a few companies sell goods or services to many buyers—and such lesser-known terms as monopsony and oligopsony—when one or only a few companies buy goods or services. Tyson Foods is a near monopolyandmonopsony.

IinterviewedBoehm about her study last September, largely focusing on the dangerous, inhumane working conditions at Tyson processing plants. At the time of our interview, thousands of its employees were infected with COVID-19 andat least 38 had diedfrom the virus because the company did not provide appropriate workplace safeguards.

Boehm的学习钻研泰森的密苏里州nopolistic practices struck one of our members as venturing outside of UCS’ traditional agenda. “While I applaud the social consciousness your Tyson Foods [column] demonstrates, I think you are getting pretty far afield from the scientific mission your organization is known for,” Owen S., from California, wrote. “Your frontal attack on monopolistic food producers does not address the important scientific issues of sustainable agricultural practices and environmental degradation. You have not made your case that breaking up Tyson Foods will lead a higher levels of sustainable and environmentally acceptable agricultural practices. Rather, you are making the case that decentralized ownership will benefit workers, and indirectly, consumers. Labor activism has no direct relationship with the science that demands changes to our food production systems…. In scientific terms, the case for changing agricultural practices is compelling. Your credibility in presenting this case is greatly diminished by engaging in social and economic justice issues, which although important, are better served by other organizations.”

Owen brings up an important issue. What are the appropriate parameters for UCS research and advocacy? Using our investigation of Tyson Foods and the US agricultural industry writ large as a jumping-off point, I turned to Stillerman, a senior analyst with the Food and Environment Program since 2006, for her take. Below is an abridged version of our conversation.

EN:Rebecca Boehm’s study and your recent analysis are certainly not the first time the Food and Environment Program has investigated unsustainable agricultural practices. I still remember the 2008 report,CAFOs Uncovered, which looked at the “untold costs” of confined animal feeding operations, and the 2011 report,提高了牛排, which recommended ways to mitigate the climate impacts of beef production. What, if anything, is different about Boehm’s study and your recent analysis than earlier UCS reports? Aren’t social and economic justice issues intimately linked to public health and environmental issues, and isn’t the objective of UCS advocacy to promote better, scientifically based federal and state policies—in this case, policies that regulate agriculture?

KPS:正确的。一切都在我们的食物系统连接to everything else. And each of these investigations tells a piece of a broader story about that system’s impact on the health and well-being ofpeople, which is really what we all care about. Our two more recent analyses are a little different from our past work on the impacts of animal agriculture and meat production in that they zero in on one company: Tyson Foods. We chose Tyson because it’s the biggest meat processor in the United States, and also because it’s a publicly traded company, which makes it accountable to shareholders and to the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. Plus, the company showed itself to be aparticularly bad actor, especially in the ways it treated its workers in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

We wanted to dig deeper to see what else we could learn about Tyson’s impact on all of us, and how public policies and consumer pressure could help reduce the negative impacts. Our economic analysis,Tyson Spells Trouble for Arkansas, showed clearly how the company has taken advantage of weak antitrust regulation to absolutely dominate the chicken industry, particularly in its home state. And from there it’s easy to see how Tyson uses its power to exploit farmers, endanger workers, and pollute communities in that state.

Of course, Tyson isn’t alone in making decisions with an eye to promoting profits over everything else. Most corporations do that. And, for better or worse, government policy decisions are typically based at least in part on assessments of cost. So it’s important be able to use economic analysis to inform our campaigns and advocacy efforts. Economics is a science, too.

EN: The issue of competition in the meat industry is getting a lot of attention these days. President Biden even talked about it in his State of the Union speech. How does the current lack of competition exacerbate the range of issues Boehm, DeLonge, and you write about? What should the Biden administration andCongress do to increase competition in the industry?

KPS:Lack of competition is at the heart of all these problems. Many people are aware of the way Big Tech monopolies such as Facebook dominate that industry and create or worsen societal problems. I often refer to Tyson Foods as “Big Chicken” because it plays a similar role in the poultry industry, which ultimately hurts everyone.

As you noted, President Biden has made the issue of competition a priority, and well before his State of the Union speech, his administration began taking important steps toward solving this problem. The USDA is investing $1 billion in financing and other assistance for smaller-scale meat and poultry processors to boost competition. This could give farmers alternative channels to get their products to market in a way that’s better for workers, communities, and the environment. But there’s a lot of work still to do, and we’re pushing the administration to do it. UCS members and supporters can join us incalling on the USDA and the Department of Justiceto more aggressively crack down on price-fixing and unfair farmer contracts, and put in place stronger rules to prevent such practices. There’s more about the administration’s progress—and where it has fallen short—in the chapter I wrote on food issues in the January UCS report,One Year of Science under Biden.

EN: Federal laws regulating how the largest animal production facilities—called confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs—store and dispose of manure (what the industry euphemistically calls “litter”) lack enforcement mechanisms. That means their manure and its nutrients are more likely to pollute waterways and create dead zones. What does UCS recommend to address this problem?

KPS:Well, the federal government can start by not using taxpayer dollars to prop up these noxious, polluting facilities. That’s what is happening now. As our partners at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalitionfound, more than 11 percent of funds distributed through the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program in fiscal year 2020 went to support CAFO practices. The next federal farm bill should change that. This is especially urgent because, as with so many things, climate change is intensifying the threats posed by CAFOs. In hurricane-prone places, for example, CAFOs pose a particular danger to water quality and public health. I wrote about that when floodwaters from Hurricane FlorenceinundatedNorth Carolina hog operations in 2018. With extreme weather events on the rise as the climate changes, CAFOs are a bit like bombs just waiting to go off. And because such facilities are typically sited in or near low-income and Black and Brown communities, those communities will be hurt most by such disasters.

EN:Boehm’s report cited a number of lawsuits that were still in play at the time. For example, consumers, retailers, restaurants, and wholesalers filed a lawsuit in 2019 accusing Tyson and other top US chicken processors of engaging in a price-fixing scheme that inflated chicken prices. Another suit accused Tyson of colluding with other poultry processors to depress wages for their largely immigrant workforce. Farmers also sued Tyson, Koch Foods, and Perdue Farms for allegedly fixing prices on $30 billion worth of live chickens the companies bought from farmers. Has anything happened with these cases since last fall?

KPS:Yes, there have been a number of developments. The case brought by the Department of Justice, which accused former poultry executives of inflating the prices that restaurants and retailers pay for chicken, ended in a mistrial last December, but federal prosecutors decided to take another swing at it. Anew trialgot underway in February, and Tyson has been cooperating under a corporate leniency program. Tyson and Perdue alsosettledthe case brought by growers, paying out $36 million to those farmers in February.

EN: Finally, let’s get back to the main issue you and Marcia DeLonge address in your new analysis. Can Tyson and other giant food companies encourage its farmer suppliers to adopt better, more sustainable practices, and how can we prod the companies to do it?

KPS:Absolutely. Our recent reports show that Tyson Foods’ size and lack of competition give the company enormous power. Tyson controls 20 percent of the entire US meat and poultry market, and it can and does set the terms for the industry, from wages and working conditions at processing facilities to the practices farmers use and the price consumers pay for chicken at the grocery store. And while the company currently flexes its muscles in ways that are really harmful, itcoulduse all that market power for good.

我们的分析显示,饲料作物泰森的需求s in its massive supply chain give it influence over an amount of cropland roughly equivalent to double the size of New Jersey. If Tyson were as serious about sustainability as it says it is, it would set higher standards for how corn, soybeans and other feed crops are grown on all that land—using suchhealthy soil practicesas cover crops and diverse crop rotations—and it would pay the farmers more to grow them that way. Instead, as you pointed out in your introduction, the company trumpeted that it would improve environmental practices on 2 million farm acres by 2020, but by June 2021, Tyson reported it had enrolled just 408,000 acres—less than a quarter of that commitment—in a pilot program and pushed off its larger goal to 2025. As consumers, we all need totell Tyson to do better.

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About the author

More from Elliott

Elliott writes about UCS-related topics for a range of news organizations. Prior to joining UCS, Elliott was the Washington communications director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, a foreign news editor at National Public Radio, the managing editor of American Journalism Review, and the editor of Nuclear Times and Public Citizen magazines.