The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico is the result of water polluted with manure and fertilizer runoff from major beef-producing states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. Dead zones are areas in a body of water that lack sufficient oxygen to support marine life. Covering approximately 8,000 square miles, the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone is about the size of New Jersey and ranks as the world’s second-largest, surpassed only by the dead zone in the Gulf of Oman. As the Guardian and Truthout reported, the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone continues to grow because big food companies lack sustainability policies to prevent environmental pollution, including especially animal waste and fertilizer runoff from industrial farms.
As Reynard Loki wrote for Truthout, a study by Mighty Earth, an environmental action group, found that the largest fast food, grocery, and food service companies in the United States are “helping to drive one of the nation’s worst human-made environmental disasters.” In a survey of 23 major brands—including Target, McDonald’s, Subway, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods—Mighty Earth found that none have policies requiring “even minimal environmental protections from meat suppliers.” Mighty Earth’s study, “Flunking the Planet,” gave all but one of the companies a failing grade overall for environmental safeguards after considering the sources of animal feed, the processing of animals’ manure, and overall greenhouse gas emissions. (Walmart earned a D-grade, based on its commitment to reducing supply chain emissions through its Project Gigaton initiative.)
“By not requiring environmental safeguards from its meat suppliers, the world’s largest natural and organic foods supermarket—and most of its big-brand counterparts in the retail food industry, like McDonald’s, Subway and Target—are sourcing and selling meat from some of the worst polluters in agribusiness, including Tyson Foods and Cargill,” Truthout reported. Mighty Earth’s study noted that the main source of water contamination is runoff from industrial farms that produce animal feed. The five largest meat companies “dominate” the supply chain, Mighty Earth reported, and bear “primary responsibility for driving the negative impacts as well as delivering solutions at scale.”
The runoff of nitrogen from chemical fertilizers poses nearly impossible challenges for the restoration of marine life in the Gulf. A study published in Science in April 2018 found that, even if all current nitrogen runoff was stopped, the Gulf would take “about 30 years to recover,” according to the Guardian. One of the Science study’s coauthors, Nandita Basu, an associate professor of environmental sciences at the University of Waterloo, likened the challenge to going on a diet: “you can’t expect results right away,” she told the Guardian. A marine scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, Denise Breitburg, observed that the study “shows we need a scientific strategy and can’t expect instant results, but we know what needs to be done to improve things.”
As Mighty Earth reported in its study, big brand food retailers fail to use their influence to encourage more sustainable practices. According to Mighty Earth’s report, companies like Walmart, Whole Foods, McDonald’s, and Burger King “have the power to set and enforce standards requiring better farming practices from suppliers.” Mighty Earth recommended that food companies require meat suppliers to implement sustainable feed sourcing, responsible manure management, and reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and that these changes should be made with time-bound targets and should be verified by third-party audits, with progress reported to the public on a regular basis.
Corporate news coverage has largely focused on the scale of the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone and its consequences—rather than on its causes, including industrial agriculture and corporate irresponsibility. In August 2017, CBS News discussed the size of the dead zone and interviewed fishermen who witnessed large decreases in fish populations at popular fishing spots. In August 2017, the Washington Post published an article on dead zones around the world. National Geographic published a substantive article on the topic the same month. The findings and recommendations from Mighty Earth’s “Flunking the Planet” study appear to have gone entirely unreported by the corporate press.
Reynard Loki, “Corporate Food Brands Drive the Massive Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico,” Truthout, August 28, 2018, https://truthout.org/articles/corporate-food-brands-driving-the-massive-dead-zone-in-gulf-of-mexico/.
Oliver Milman, “‘Dead Zone’ in Gulf of Mexico Will Take Decades to Recover from Farm Pollution,” The Guardian, March 22, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/mar/22/dead-zone-gulf-of-mexico-decades-recover-study.
Student Researcher: Adriana Babicz (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Peter Phillips (Sonoma State University)