On January 13, 2009, Tyson—one of the world's largest processors of chicken, beef, and pork—and the fuel company Syntroleum broke ground in Geismar, Louisiana, on a "renewable" diesel plant. The fuel will be produced in part with Tyson factory farm byproducts, including animal fat and poultry litter. ("Litter" is the euphemistic term for poultry poop mixed with feathers, leftover feed, bedding, and whatever else ends up on the factory floor.) Tyson says this plant, along with another one it's building with oil giant ConocoPhillips in Borger, Texas, will produce diesel destined for military and commercial aircraft. Once it is working at full capacity, the Geismar plant alone, Tyson estimates, will produce roughly one quarter of the country's current total output of biofuels.
Tyson claims these facilities produce eco-friendly, cleaner-burning fuels from scraps that would otherwise be wasted. But critics beg to differ, arguing that the fuel doesn't actually burn any cleaner and, worse, that these plants incentivize intensive livestock production and processing methods that are decidedly bad for the environment and the climate. They charge that this fuel is renewable only in the narrowest sense, if you ignore the complete life cycle of its production. The fuels depend on energy-intensive, greenhouse-gas-emitting confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which require feed raised with methods that deplete topsoil and overuse synthetic fertilizer, contributing to carbon dioxide emissions.
Tyson's processing plants also use enormous amounts of energy, from the cooling needed to maintain stable temperatures, to the heating needed to provide a constant supply of scalding water, to the ventilation systems needed to regulate air circulation. The fuel plants themselves also require significant energy inputs. "Because it is a high-temperature, high-pressure process, we expect it would take much more energy to make that conversion from biomass to liquid fuel," Jessica Robinson of the National Biodiesel Board explains.
Then there are the myriad environmental tolls from Tyson meat production—the source of all those byproducts. Waste from production sites contaminates water supplies and releases the greenhouse gas methane, along with ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, and other nasty compounds.
Nevertheless, Tyson is just one of the latest food companies to capitalize on opportunities presented by the "green" fuel industry. Poultry giant Perdue launched a bio-fuels division in 2006. Thanks to the big push for corn-based ethanol, Archer Daniels Midland has said it wants to position itself as "the global leader in bioenergy," with plans for "explosive growth." And Cargill also has extensive ethanol operations that use a range of feedstocks. Name a big food producer—whether grain trader or meat processor—and you'll find it has entered the fuel market, too.
Something happens when your industry is no longer an invisible force in global warming. Sure, visibility means that your company can be targeted as a climate-change culprit. But it also means you can capitalize on the windfalls of our new era—the subsidies, tax breaks, and booming carbon market. As long as you're part of the problem, you can be part of the solution. And get paid for it.