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FRAN ALEXANDER: Lost down the river

Organization calls on Tyson to do more

If we follow the Mississippi River's watershed to its terminus, we reach the Gulf of Mexico. Cradled by five states, this water has long suffered body blows from humankind. Oil spills, pipeline breaks, chemical leaks, wetland depletion, wildlife habitat destruction, shipping waste and traffic, and runoff from sewers, parking lots, golf courses, industries, lawns, farms and the crunched remains of hurricane-demolished cities have all happened to the Gulf.

This, the nation's third coastline, and once one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, has for decades been used as an out-of-sight dumping ground, even for sea burial of spent and surplus bombs, chemical weapons, ships and munitions. In addition, a notation on a 2010 National Geographic map reads, "The Gulf holds more than 50,000 wells and some 42,000 miles of pipelines." Also, on top of the water are about 4,000 off-shore drilling platforms (2010 data).

Each summer the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration sends scientists into the Gulf's water, literally, to measure its "dead zone." This year the zone was the largest yet, covering 8,776 square miles, an area about the size of New Jersey. These waters are considered dead because decomposing algae masses consume the oxygen needed for swimming marine life, and smother sea-bottom critters that fish feed upon.

It is nutrient pollution, mostly nitrogen and phosphorus used as fertilizer, that creates miles of blooming algae choking the life out of the water. Backtracking up the river to those nutrient sources leads to the nation's heartland, the country's breadbasket and meat market. Here is where corn, soy and other grains are grown to feed most of the chickens, hogs and cattle consumed by Americans. And it is in Arkansas where the country's largest meat company, producing one out of every five pounds of meat consumed in the United States, was founded and run by the Tyson family.

Examination of Tyson's sustainability reports is an impressive experience. If the programs and implementation of intentions explained in these reports are not window-dressing, the company seems to have a sincere grasp of what sustainability, efficiency, conservation and awareness all mean, at least to their immediate operations. If Tyson Foods has an environmental Achilles heel, however, it seems to be in its feed supply chain of independent farms. At least this is the opinion of Mighty Earth, a global environmental campaign organization that works to protect forests, conserve oceans and address climate change.

Their informational materials state, "To identify the companies responsible, the investigation [has mapped] the supply chains of the top meat and feed companies, and overlays it with data showing elevated nitrate concentrations in waterways that are experiencing high levels of fertilizer pollution. The report also mapped where these supply chains are driving destruction of natural grasslands, including native prairies, putting new regions at risk for fertilizer pollution. Tyson Foods stood out for its expansive footprint in all the regions suffering the worst pollution impacts from industrial meat and feed production."

For their part, Tyson Foods responded, "We share this group's concern about the environment, but disagree with its misleading characterization of our company. Tyson Foods is not in the business of raising the crops, and we own very few livestock farms."

In 2013, Tyson paid more than 11,000 farmers over $15.4 billion for meat animals, which were processed in their plants in 18 states. It is this vast scale and concentration of influence where the company could affect supply-chain farming practices that has been the basis for Mighty Earth's, "NWA 'Clean It Up, Tyson' Campaign," which is also its Facebook moniker. Promoting cover crop practices to reduce erosion, adding extensive landscaping buffers to block run-off, optimizing fertilizer application, and ceasing the clearance of native prairie ecosystems are a few of the practices the organization is urging the company to promote in order to cut nutrient and topsoil loss on a scale commensurate with their industry's impact.

Clarification

This column has been modified to reflect a change in parking location for the Mighty Earth event. The parking lot originally mentioned is not available and its proprietors have no connection to the Might Earth event.

To present their petitions to Tyson about these issues, the Mighty Earth campaign plans to shuttle anyone wishing to join them from Oxford Place in Springdale at 9 a.m. on Nov. 30 to a gathering outside Tyson headquarters in Springdale. Such efforts can sometimes make activists feel like David facing off with Goliath, but public awareness must start somewhere. Walmart and other companies have had major impacts on the requirements they place on their suppliers. Mighty Earth evidently believes similar business practices from Tyson could have a major effect on decreasing nutrient-caused dead zones in our Gulf of Mexico.

Commentary on 11/14/2017

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