This week the environmental activist group Mighty Earth issued a report titled “Mystery Meat II: The Industry Behind the Quiet Destruction of the American Heartland,” which seeks to blame the meat industry for any real or perceived environmental impact it can find. It’s a juicy media story, but the report fails at a very basic level because it conveniently ignores facts and greatly simplifies how crops are grown in the U.S. and how those crops are used. The report’s claims are akin to blaming the steel industry for auto emissions because steel is used in cars. As with almost everything, this issue is more complicated than the simple picture Mighty Earth tries to paint.
The most egregious assumption Mighty Earth makes is that corn and soy grown in the Midwest is almost exclusively used by the meat industry. This presumption is simply false, undermining the report’s premise. USDA data show that more corn is used to produce ethanol, more than 40 percent of production, than for any other use. Animal feed is the next largest use and then there are a wide variety of other uses, such as sweeteners, cereals, flours and other foods. There are thousands of farmers throughout the Midwest who grow crops for these various uses and today they take numerous steps to ensure they are producing food responsibly and sustainably. The U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance has a great summary of the many advances that have been made in its Agriculture in America Sustainability Report. With respect to animal feed, the meat industry works with feed manufacturers who work with suppliers who work with farmers in a supply chain to ensure the highest quality nutrition for animals. In fact, there are more than 900 agricultural ingredients and co-products used to create animal feed. Ingredients include barley, corn, distiller’s grain, forage, fruits, minerals, sorghum, vegetables, vitamins and wheat. Many of these are not fit for human consumption, so their use in animal feed only enhances the industry’s sustainability.
The report’s primary focus is on the “dead zone” that has formed in the Gulf of Mexico, where there is low oxygen or hypoxia that can impact marine life. Nutrients of all types, including from agriculture, certainly play a role in hypoxia. To conclude, however, that the hypoxic zone is caused by “one thing,” whether it is one crop or one sector of the economy (i.e. agriculture) is preposterous, particularly when ignoring the biggest contributing factor – the weather. The Mighty Earth report chooses to ignore these important, and for them inconvenient, facts and instead blame a single industry for a complex problem.
Because Mighty Earth chooses to ignore how crops are grown and used, how feed is produced, how farmers have embraced sustainable production practices and the variety of factors contributing to dead zones, it comes as no surprise that it also ignores the significant progress made in the meat industry to reduce its environmental impact. Today, we produce more meat using less water, land, and other resources than ever before. Companies have embraced sustainable practices that ensure less water usage and less waste while utilizing as much of the animal as possible for meat, feed, leather, medical products, and cosmetics. Nothing that can be used is wasted and it done while feeding Americans delicious, nutrient dense foods they love. It is a mighty industry success story of which we’re proud. Undoubtedly, there is more that can be done and as an industry, we’re committed to reducing our environmental impact through strong, science based information. We encourage Mighty Earth to take a similar approach.