Kirsten James is director of the water program at Ceres, a sustainability nonprofit organization.
The U.S. meat industry is in the midst of extraordinary turmoil as more and more processing plant workers become infected with COVID-19. Supply chains are being tested around the globe with similar disruptions, and in some cases, they are breaking down completely. Understandably, worker well-being is top of mind for investors and companies.
While the meat industry manages these extraordinary public health and economic impacts of the pandemic, there's another looming global threat on the horizon that the industry cannot afford to ignore. The impacts of the ongoing water crisis have the potential to inflict widespread damage across the industry if preventative, actionable steps aren’t taken today.
Meat's role in the global water crisis
The meat industry poses an alarming danger to the global water supply as they are responsible for one-third of freshwater withdrawals annually, as well as the discharge of harmful pollutants into waterways. Conversely, the meat industry is extremely vulnerable to the physical, regulatory and reputational risks stemming from water scarcity and pollution.
These risks have been front and center for decades, and more recently, flooding along the Mississippi River basin has caused billions of dollars in damage for meat companies reliant on the production and transportation of commodities throughout America’s farm belt. The meat sector has also been the target of global activist campaigns over its contribution to the dead zone that forms annually in the Gulf of Mexico as a result of runoff of nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich fertilizer and manure from meat companies and their feed suppliers. For instance, Smithfield Foods — the world's biggest pork producer — has been the subject of more than 25 federal lawsuits in recent years over water and air pollution from its North Carolina hog farms. It was forced to pay more than $473 million in damages to community residents living within close proximity to the farms.
Despite this, the meat industry has been slow to act. As the Feeding Ourselves Thirsty report from Ceres shows, meat companies have failed to tackle water pollution within their agricultural supply chains and do little to help the farmers that supply them become more resilient to extreme weather.
Small steps toward a sustainable water footprint
There are some rays of light in this otherwise dreary picture. Most of the meat companies in Ceres' report have established targets to reduce water use in their factories, while more than half now report basic water accounting data to the public on an annual basis.
Smithfield Foods has stepped up by starting to source animal feed more sustainably, achieving its goal of ensuring that 75% of the feed grain purchased by the producer is grown with efficient fertilizer and soil health practices. Through its SmithfieldGro initiative, on-staff agronomists travel to supplier grain farms to demonstrate strategies that improve fertilizer usage and crop production. Smithfield also provides farmers with Adapt-N management technology that helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and groundwater nitrogen pollution through higher yields and nutrient application efficiency.
Industry collaboration is the way forward
Collective action is critical to reducing water risks and creating more resilient global supply chains. There are some positive examples of food companies already beginning to work more closely with farmers, non-governmental organizations and peers to tackle some of the most pressing global water challenges. For example, earlier this year, Danone helped launch "Farming for Generations," a coalition of leading agriculture and food companies that aims to help dairy farmers transition to regenerative agriculture practices. And, in January of this year, Tyson Foods announced the creation of the Coalition for Global Protein, a multi-stakeholder initiative ostensibly with the goal of "safeguarding ecosystems," in addition to increasing global access to protein and reducing food waste.
These efforts even expand beyond meat and dairy producers to restaurants and food service providers that buy and use their meat and dairy products. Large shareholders have become more vocal on the issue, and in January, an $11.4 trillion investor coalition challenged the world’s largest fast food giants to work with their meat and dairy suppliers to set aggressive targets to reduce water impacts.
While this progress is encouraging, meat companies still have a long road ahead to a water-secure future. As investor and consumer interest in meatless, eco-friendly products grow, the meat industry must adapt or risk its own profitability and future growth.