Big Meat: Fueling Change or Greenwashing Fuel?



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.

Look at the windfall for Tyson. Its synthetic fuels could qualify for a tax break for every gallon of fuel produced. And on June 19, 2008, the Louisiana State Bond Commission authorized "without objection" $100 million in tax-free bonds to help fund the construction of the company's Louisiana fuel plant, projected to cost $138 million. The bonds are offered through the Gulf Opportunity Zone program, created to boost redevelopment following Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, and they carry an interest rate 25 to 30 percent lower than the rest of the market. They're also tax-exempt, meaning private investors don't have to pay tax on that interest. So the government is subsidizing the buyers of the bonds and, by association, enabling Tyson to build the plant with some of the cheapest capital around.

In addition to these low-cost bonds, Tyson secured $400,000 from the Louisiana Economic Development Corporation. And the parish where the facility is located pledged $600,000 in sales tax rebates to support rail-spur construction to help the plant. (The parish's only concern was whether poultry would be slaughtered at the plant. When Tyson promised to import the poultry grease from other facilities, the deal was sealed.)

Should we applaud Tyson's move? Not if we consider the full consequences of its production methods. In a damning critique of CAFOs, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production determined that the "rapid ascendance" of CAFOs "has produced unintended and often unanticipated environmental and public health concerns." Tyson itself has even admitted to them. In one recent case, the company settled with the EPA, paying a $5.5 million fine for 20 felony Clean Water Act violations and admitting it had knowingly discharged untreated wastewater from its plant in Sedalia, Missouri.

As Worldwatch's animal agriculture and climate-change specialist, Danielle Nierenberg, puts it, "Fuel from farm-animal waste has the potential to perpetuate the environmental problems created by CAFOs, while giving animal agribusiness the opportunity to greenwash its unsustainable and welfare-unfriendly practices."

And in the end? The Tyson fuel burns with emissions no cleaner than those of regular diesel, according to the National Biodiesel Board.

"Making fuel out of poop is not a silver bullet for reducing greenhouse gases from the livestock industry," Nierenberg says. "Allowing animals to graze on pasture, which can be carbon sinks that prevent carbon from being released into the atmosphere, is a better, more environmentally sustainable solution."

Despite these criticisms Tyson has managed to spin its fuel initiative as a green alternative to dirty coal and other nonrenewable fuels. But instead of getting government handouts— our tax dollars—Tyson should be asked to prove how these initiatives get to the root of the meat industry's environmental impact. With the climate crisis looming, we need to radically reduce our emissions and not just tinker at the edges.

Copyright © by Anna Lappé. Adapted and reprinted from the book Diet for a Hot Planet by permission of Bloomsbury USA.