Tyson Foods utilizes between nine and 10m acres of farmland – an area almost twice the size of New Jersey – to produce corn and soybeans to feed the more than 2 billion animals it processes every year in the US alone, according to new research.
The study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) published on Wednesday also estimates that only about 5% of this land, 408,000 acres, has been enrolled in sustainable farming programs announced by Tyson in 2018.
The UCS findings are based on calculations of the amount of corn and soybeans Tyson required to feed the approximately 6 million head of cattle, 22 million hogs and nearly 2 billion chickens it processed in the US in 2020, drawing on data reported by Tyson.
Most consumers do not appreciate how much land is needed exclusively to support industrial animal farming and the wider environmental impacts of that, said Marcia DeLonge, a senior scientist in the food and environment program at the UCS and co-author of the report. “We are using this land in a way that creates a lot of pollution and a lot of problems that contribute to climate change,” DeLonge said.
Tyson Foods did not respond to requests to comment on the UCS research and questions about its crop feed footprint.
Gidon Eshel, research professor of Environmental Physics at Bard College, said the scale of farming needed to produce animal feed contributes to many of the environmental problems of large-scale agriculture. These issues include changes to soil and the natural flow of water, the way solar energy relates to the earth, and disruption of plants and animals. Pollution from fertilizers and pesticides are another big concern, and the risks of contaminating drinking water and harming ecosystems.
In 2020, 174m acres were used exclusively to plant corn and soybeans in the US – an area larger than Texas, which accounts for 56% of the US’s 310m total cropland acres – according to the UCS report. Some of these crops are used for biofuel and processed foods but, according to the US Department of Agriculture, most is used for feed crops. “Because [this land] could otherwise be used to grow foods eaten by people, feed crop production ultimately affects everyone,” the report said.
There is a significant opportunity cost in growing feed crops, Eshel said. “If you produce 100lbs of corn and feed it to beef, you get 3lbs of edible beef. Because of this, using land to grow feed crops instead of food [for humans] is incredibly questionable – it’s wasteful,” he said.
While Tyson itself does not own feed crop farms, its influence over the thousands of farmers in its supply chain is huge. The company, which produces about 20% of the pork, beef and chicken consumed in the US, is one of the nation’s largest buyers of feed.
In 2018, the company announced a commitment to “support improved environmental practices” on 2m acres of corn it uses for feed crops by the end of 2020. Tyson said the pledge would “encourage grain farmers to adopt more efficient fertilizer practices, and take additional measures to reduce water runoff and soil loss”.
Tom Hayes, the company’s then CEO, said in a statement at the time: “The world needs a more sustainable food system, and we believe it’s up to big companies like ours to set the pace with bold goals.”
Today, however, only 408,000 acres have been enrolled into pilot sustainability programs and the company has pushed its deadline to meet the 2m mark to 2025, mainly citing Covid-related delays.
Tyson’s dominant position means the company could be a leader in sustainable food practices but its current efforts fall short, said DeLonge. “Two million acres is an important step, but not only did they delay that goal, they’ve also only come through on 408,000 acres.”
Even if Tyson achieves its 2m acre pledge, this land is only a fraction of the company’s overall impact. According to UCS’s estimates, Tyson’s total feed crop footprint is more than five times larger and close to 23 times the size of its current progress.
DeLonge also questioned the lack of detail in Tyson’s pledge. “Enrolling those acres into sustainability pilot programs is a good first step, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that those acres are being managed in a way that is truly sustainable,” she said.
Tyson Foods recently set a goal to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
Sustainable feed crop farming means growing crops without damaging the environment, degrading resources or exploiting people, said DeLonge. “Achieving this would mean building and maintaining healthy soils, managing water wisely, minimizing pollution, promoting biodiversity and treating workers with dignity and respect,” she said.
Last August the Guardian and UCS published a joint investigation which showed how Tyson’s near monopoly in its home state of Arkansas gives it huge power, at a cost to farmers and the environment. Tyson Food at the time defended its record as an employer and pointed to the economic activity the meat industry created.
The new UCS report said that the environmental impact of croplands management can become worse in the face of farmland consolidation, explaining that for decades, the land used to grow crops has been merged into fewer and larger farms, undermining rural economies and communities across the US.
“When a single company, like Tyson, has so much leverage over so much farmland, their actions can have substantial consequences,” said DeLonge.