Tyson Foods, one of the world’s largest producers of meat and poultry, is likely to be significantly affected by climate change. Food production and livestock may not necessarily be the first thing that pops into our heads when we think about climate change but if you haven’t already, let’s pause and consider it for a moment. An industry or company can be affected by climate change in two ways; those that contribute to the onset of climate change, with the potential for negative impact due to consumer sentiment and/or regulation, or those that will have their operating performance squeezed due to increasing inefficiencies induced by climate change. I believe Tyson Foods is in the precarious position of straddling both sides of the equation.
While there is debate around the actual impact of the livestock supply chain on GHG emissions with estimates ranging from 18%1 to a staggering 51%2, the impact appears to be significant. In fact, even 18% is higher than the entire transportation sector’s emissions. With human consumption of livestock still increasing per capita and the global population forecasted to reach 9.6 billion by 20503, this issue is only expected to become more exacerbated. If unchecked, this trend could lead to an estimated 80% increase in global livestock GHG emissions by 20504.
On the other side, Tyson Foods is also in the unenviable position of dominating an industry where climate change is lower production yields and therefore operating performance. Rising temperatures and greater fluctuations in weather patterns are adversely affecting crop performance and consequently, livestock production for Tyson Foods5.
Tyson Foods has taken some steps to address the implications of climate change6. To-date, these can be categorized into three buckets:
- Monitoring and addressing the sustainability materiality of their operations;
- Participating in partnerships and initiatives targeting sustainable agricultural; and
- Investing in companies seeking to generate sustainable sources of food
Firstly, Tyson produces an annual sustainability materiality assessment, although it was “…not meant to be a comprehensive review of all sustainability risks and opportunities.” 6 While sustainable agriculture is one of six metrics covered, during 2013-15 Tyson managed to maintain stable levels of “GHG Intensity” and “Electricity Intensity” per pound of finished goods. However, “Energy Use Intensity” and “Fuel Intensity” per pound of finished product both increased.
Secondly, Tyson has become more active in sustainable agriculture partnerships and initiatives, including becoming a founding member of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, in March 20156 and announcing a partnership with The Nature Conservancy to support projects intended to conserve water quality, in July 20156.
Thirdly, Tyson has begun investing in more sustainable food sources, including a 5% stake in plant-based protein producer, Beyond Meat7. While some stakeholders from both sides of the table are concerned about this move, others see it as a step in the right direction. That is, for Tyson to move into more sustainable meat alternatives and to provide smaller meat alternatives (such as Beyond Meat) with the knowledge and connections needed to effectively scale their business.
Taking a step back from Tyson’s current activities, I think it’s worth drawing into focus the overarching goal – to ensure global food systems are both profitable and sustainable in the face of climate change. To achieve this, there are three outcomes that require intervention8:
- Increasing productivity sustainably;
- Enhancing the resilience of producers and supply chains; and
- Reducing emissions
While Tyson has made some initial commitments to address these factors, I believe much more can be done to make a more meaningful contribution to this critical mission.
Tyson can increase their commitment to the three initiatives already underway, for example, improving their GHG and Electricity Intensity, becoming an architect and beacon of sustainable agriculture globally, as well as increasing their investments in companies creating sustainable food alternatives.
In addition, I see four areas for Tyson to take additional steps, it can:
- Elevate the importance of sustainability within their company by introducing a Chief Sustainability Officer to their management team – a role that is currently void from their executive management;
- Help their supply chain partners to identify and implement more sustainable agricultural practices;
- Educate consumers on the processes and challenges of livestock production and the environmental impact of consuming different types of animal protein; and
- Champion global agricultural policy to ensure sustainability is incorporated into vertically integrated support programs to drive more sustainable supply chain
While these points may sound counter-intuitive (especially the third) as they are likely to negatively impact Tyson’s bottom line in the short-term, I feel they are necessary to curb the current trajectory of the food industry’ relationship with climate change. Education and timely and reliable data are core enablers of the effective allocation the world’s resources to ensure our food system can meet growing consumer demand profitably and sustainably.
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- Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2006, “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options”, ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/010/ a0701e/a0701e03.pdf, accessed November 2016
- Goodland, R. and Anhang, J., 2009, “Livestock and Climate Change: What if the key actors in climate change were pigs, chickens and cows?”, Worldwatch November/December 2009, Worldwatch Institute, pp. 10–19
- United Nations, 2006, “World population projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 – UN report.” http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=45165#.WBv7f9Ur LIU, accessed November 2016
- United Nations, 2006, “Rearing cattle produces more greenhouse gases than driving cars, UN report warns”, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?newsID=20772#. WBv49tUrLIU, accessed November 2016
- Hererro et al., 2011, “Livestock and greenhouse gas emissions: The importance of getting the numbers right”, Animal Feed Science and Technology
- Tyson Foods, 2016, “Tyson Sustainability”, http://www.tysonsustainability.com/ about-this-report, accessed November 2016
- Chicago Sun Times, 2016, “Tyson invests in Beyond Meat, maker of meat substitute”, http://chicago.suntimes.com/news/tyson-buys-stake-in-maker-of-meat-substitute/, accessed November 2016
- Tilman, D, Clark, M, 2014. Global diets link environmental sustainability and human health. Nature, Volume 515, 518, 520, http://academic.regis.edu/MFRAN CO/Seminar%20in%20Biology%20research%20Literature/Papers/GobalDiets.pdf, accessed November 2016