Tyson Foods May Have a Sustainability Report But It Doesn't Mean Factory Farming is Ever Sustainable

I normally don't take direct aim at other people's reporting, but a recent post on Tyson Foods new sustainability report over at SmartPlanet made me wonder if I was living on that same planet as the author. What's sure is we have differing definitions for 'sustainable' and the place of factory farming in the world.I'll just state straight out that in my definition of sustainable, in my bright green vision of the future, factory farming has no place. At all.

From the treatment of the animals themselves, to the pollution the farms create, to the contribution it all makes to the patently unhealthy American diet--check out this great chart from Good on What America Eats if you need it visualized--all of it needs such a radical overhaul that the system itself has no place in an ecologically sustainable future. Full stop. Tinkering with it won't solve the problem, only make it very slightly less awful.

Viewed through that lens I really just can't comprehend Clancy's final paragraph in her assessment of the new report:

Although Tyson apparently doesn't spend a lot of time trumpeting its corporate sustainability programs (this is only its third annual report), it seems to me that sustainability underlies the management of its operations. Its subtle goal of ensuring that renewable energy research doesn't interfere with food supplies is obviously self-interested, but its move to apply that policy to a venture in biofuels -- one that makes use of waste in its supply chain -- is the sort of innovative thinking that, for me, distinguishes smart sustainability strategy.

The details cited, leading to this conclusion:

Less Water Use Per Pound of Meat
The fact that Tyson was reduced water needed to produce a pound of food ("finished product"--euphemism for a chicken that spent it's like in utterly horrendous conditions prior to being industrially slaughtered): 14% less water now, aiming for a further 10% by 2012.

Good, albeit in an ignore entirely the bigger issue way.

Biofuels Made From Inedible Animal Parts
Utilizing waste fat from its processing plants to produce biofuels, specifically a new joint venture with Syntroleum called Dynamic Fuels and a new biodiesel production facility in Louisiana, with a capacity of 75 million gallons a year. I've written about this project before and my interpretation still stands:

While utilizing the waste products of a particular process to create renewable energy is generally a great thing, when the process that creates the waste has such huge animal rights and environmental problems in the first place it really can't be called ecologically sustainable by any stretch of the word.

What's more, Tyson touts that this fuel is made from non-food sources, implying that no additional crop land is required for it. This ignores the fact that large amounts of cropland which could be growing food for direct human consumption instead is used to grow corn or other fodder for livestock. The bigger issue is again ignored.

There Are Some Processes You Can Improve - And Some That You Can't
There are sometimes when we ought to be cheering the genuine sustainability efforts of large corporations.

Walmart's efforts in the past few years in this area are remarkable, even if the big box retail concept (and in specific Walmart's version of it) is not something I can support on the whole, nor is likely ecologically sustainable in the grand scheme of things. Their size in the marketplace alone means that when a company like Seventh Generation starts distributing products through them, while on some level I don't like it, it's hard to argue against the positive effect of more people having access to green household and cleaning products.

Tyson Foods is in a different category. Using less water to produce more chicken, beef and pork--Tyson's number two in the world in this category--doesn't improve the conditions for the animals, nor does it address the negative health impacts of a meat-heavy diet, nor the large environmental concerns. Producing biofuels from the less savory, inedible bits of these dead animals doesn't mean the fuel is good for the environment either.

Like this? Follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

More on Factory Farming:
So What Does the Inside of a Factory Farm Look Like Anyway?
More Factory Farming Means More Antibiotic-Resistant Urinary Tract Infections
Eat Meat, Ditch Factory Farming, Save the Planet, Says Friends of the Earth Report
Jonathan Safron Foer Explains Why Hot Dog Makers Won't Eat Hot Dogs on Colbert Report (Video)

Tags: Agriculture | Animals | Corporate Responsibility | Diet

Best of TreeHugger