Is Tyson Forcing Itself Into Sustainability?

The biggest meat industry giant is taking a small step that will have positive benefits to the environment, farm animals and all of us meat-eaters- because it has to.

When thinking of climate change, thoughts of smoky gases emitting from power plants, refineries and vehicle tailpipes are typically the first elicited. But just as impactful are those gases released from farmed animals. Raising livestock for meat consumption, an industry with annual revenues $175B in the US alone, is second to energy production in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and greater than all forms of transportation industries combined1. Adding to this problem is the expected growth in population of 1.5B by 2050 that will increase meat consumption by 70%2.  The meat industry needs to radically solve how to both feed the demand and simultaneously lessen its impact in doing so.

Green House Gas Emissions by Industry

Current State of Meat Production

At its current rate, the livestock industry alone will take up the entire ‘carbon budget’ set by the Paris Convention to limit the global temperature increase to 2°C by 2050. Temperature increases beyond this can turn climate change into an extremely devastating state 3.

Out of all the total global emissions, 15% come from livestock, of which 67% is beef and dairy production. The process of producing meat for consumption- raising, processing and transporting- is not only energy intensive but also involves deforesting (the clearing of land and plants that absorb atmospheric CO2) for grazing livestock. Livestock feeds on this land causing their eructation and flatulence to release methane (which is a GHG 20x more potent than carbon dioxide (C02))4.

Reducing consumer meat consumption and shifting towards vegan diets would be the easiest ways to drive declines in meat demand but almost impossible to implement. What needs to be done is a major shift in availability of more climate-friendly food options.

Tyson’s Big Move

Tyson Foods Inc., with revenues of $41.4B5, is the largest producer of meat in the world. It has taken a step towards breaking the vicious cycle it is the main culprit of. As stated in its current 10K, Tyson is taking the climate impact threat seriously as it acknowledges the regulation and compliance risk it needs to abide by to lessen its production of GHG emissions into the future6. In October of 2016, Tyson purchased a 5% stake in a vegan startup, Beyond Meat, a plant-based meat company, making Tyson the first major meat company to invest in alternative-animal meat production7.

Non-animal protein production is an interest for a rapidly growing class of start-ups and venture capitals focusing on engineering innovative food products to drive sustainable and ethical food alternatives. Animal-alternative meat accounts for only 1%  of total current meat market but Tyson is thinking ahead. Although this new product diversification can improve Tyson’s image to the more ethical and sustainable persuasion, it’s just about business. This new animal-alternative food technology is expected to grow to 1/3 of total meat market by 20548. The positive effects of this new market also go beyond climate change reduction by improving people’s diets and animals’ welfare; less red-meat consumption leads to a reduction of cardiovascular disease in humans and eliminates the need for animals subjected to inhumane treatment and slaughter in factory farms.

Other Solutions to Consider

Another alternative to animal-based meat Tyson can consider is tissue culture meat9. Tissue culture meat essentially takes animal tissues and sequesters the muscle and fat cells in a container to allow them to grow naturally using fetal bovine serum in a lab. The result is a lean piece of beef that is lower in calories and cholesterol than a conventional steak and burger. Although this new process is new (and expensive), there are several VC’s investing in these start-ups, with big backers as famous as Bill Gates and Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Besides waiting for animal-alternative meat production to scale enough for affordability and convenience to end-consumers, there are other methods Tyson can implement to its current livestock production to lessen its emissions of GHGs. Organic agriculture implementation for livestock grazing can increase the rate of soil sequestration of GHGs and reduce the methane livestocks emit10. Another alternative is the introduction of algae into livestocks’ diets. Algae absorbs atmospheric CO2 and can be a climate-friendly alternative energy source11. Introducing algae to livestock feed can not only improve the nutrional and digestivitiy of livestock but also reduce the need for deforestation.

The Influencers

The impact of the agribusiness does not rely solely on the producer. It is up to the end consumer to choose other options so the retailer can stop stocking, and the manufacturer stop producing. But, would a consumer care if what they ate improved the environment and reduced the killing of animals? Probably not. All they care about is about the taste, price and convenience8. So, it is up to food giants like Tyson to start offering these options for the protection and longevity of this world and all the life within it.

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1.  “How Meat Contributes to Global Warming”, Scientific American,

2. D. Carrington, “Eating Less Meat Essential to Curb Climate Change, Says Report”, United Nations University (Dec 2014),

3.  J. Sutter, “Why Beef is the New SUV”, CNN (Nov 2015),

4. “How much does animal agriculture and eating meat contribute to global warming?”, Skeptical Science (Nov 2015),

5. Tyson Foods Inc. 2015 Annual Report,


6. Tyson Foods Inc. 2015 Annual Report, 10-K,

7. S. Strom, “Tyson Foods , a Meat Leader, Invests in Protein Alternatives”, New York Times (Oct 2016),

8.  E. Bird, B. Friedrich, Yale Presents Meat’s Sustainability Problem, The Good Food Institute (Oct 2016) ,

9. Alvarez et al, “Disrupting the Meat Industry: Tissue Culture Beef”, HBS No. 9-515-001 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2015), pg. 2-3

10. California Climate & Agriculture Network, “The Climate Benefits of Organic Culture” (Apr 2011),

11. A. Einstein-Curtis, “Upping use of algae in feed may reduce global warming rate” (Mar 2016),


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Student comments on Is Tyson Forcing Itself Into Sustainability?

  1. Eric, I really enjoyed your post on the environmental impact of meat consumption. From a personal standpoint, I believe that the amount of meat consumed (at least in the US) presents true “low-hanging fruit” from an environmental and health standpoint: transitioning more individuals toward a plant-based diet can present a “win-win” that both improves health outcomes, helps address climate change risk, and increases food access to underserved populations (by lowering resource consumption in the production of that food). For those interested in this topic, I would highly recommend the documentary, “Forks over Knives,” which explores the potential benefits of plant-based diets (and I believe it is on Netflix!).

    However, I’d like to push back on your claim that consumers only care about “taste, price, and convenience.” There is a huge market for nutritious foods and health products, as indicated by the success of companies such as Equinox, Nike, Juice Press, Whole Foods, etc. I would argue that consumers do value health and nutrition—however, there is considerable confusion in the marketplace about which food products are the “healthiest.”

    To this point, I think that one area of skepticism amongst health-conscious consumers does center on meat and animal-based products. Consumers, and more recently, regulatory agencies such as the FDA and the USDA, have expressed concern around animal health pharmaceuticals, antibiotics, and medicinal food additives that are potentially entering the food supply. In my view, one additional way that Tyson can mitigate its climate change exposure is by differentiating its meat products as “healthy and natural,” i.e., free of many of the pharmaceutical products that consumers fear have infiltrated the supply chain. Obviously, implementing such production processes for livestock animals would be very expensive—there is even a question on the MA ballot concerning this very issue next week!—but there may be positive trade-offs in the form of attracting more health-conscious consumers as sustainability issues come to the forefront long-term.

  2. Thanks for bringing to light this important issue.
    As I view it there is an interesting and important convergence here of sustainability, market influence and ethical concerns. We are therefore in a crucial point, where perhaps this convergence will lead to a true change in the way humans produce and consume food.

    While going completely vegan may still be extreme, there is a growing trend today towards flexeterianism – people that choose to actively reduce the amount of meat they are eating. Often they opt for quality over quantity. Another thing to consider in this analysis is what role will the market plays – already today meat prices are on the rise, leading to a decline in consumption. Is this a trend (dictated by the rising price of feeding kettle)?

    Finally, one more option that companies like Tyson Foods have is widening the use of Methane Digesters, which are machines that can literally digest methane from the air and use it to create energy. While this method works and is used potently in landfills, the meat industry is yet to introduce wide spread use of it.

  3. Eric,

    Thanks for the post! I totally agree with Elizabeth that the opportunity to reduce meat consumption could be a very fruitful (or fruit-and-veggie-full…heheh) way to cut emissions dramatically. As a vegetarian for whom climate change is a major motivator for avoiding meat, I’m really excited and curious about the emerging market of lab-grown meat like Beyond Meat!

    I especially like your point that getting plant-based meat products to grow as a portion of the market would require consumer behavior shift as well as different choices by suppliers and retailers. On the consumer behavior shift front, I was thinking of some of the same considerations Elizabeth raised above. There is a huge interest in eating more natural and healthful food, and there is mounting skepticism of the factory farming/meat industry. Perhaps those trends create a big opportunity for Beyond Meat (and for Tyson, therefore).

    That said, there a two big assumptions that would need to play out to make that possible:
    1) People have to be willing to give Beyond Meat a try: I’ve read a bunch about the Herculean effort Beyond Meat (and other competitors) have put in trying to create a product that is a close in taste and mouthfeel to “real” meat as possible. They are clearly recognizing a certain skepticism and squeamishness among consumers who are hesitant to try new “fake” meat products. Getting the taste and sensation as comparable as possible is a critical component of the strategy, but it’s also important to lower barriers to sample so that more and more people are willing to taste it and see how comparable it really is. ( (

    2) People have to believe Beyond Meat is more healthful: There are two things I’m worried about in this camp. I found a few articles citing that some of the additives used to simulate meat taste may be harmful to health (including smokiness, which could be a carcinogen). It seems to be the early consensus that, overall, substitutes are more healthful than meat, but consumers may still be wary of new kinds of threats. ( Second, I worry about the totally baseless suspicion food consumers have of “processed” foods. Though there is little evidence about the relationship between level of processing and healthiness, many consumers shun foods that seem less natural. This can also be seen in the resistance to GMOs, which has little to no scientific evidence supporting it. I worry that health-conscious consumers might lump Beyond Meat in with GMOs and other rejected foods. (

    Thanks for the post!

  4. Eric, thank you for bringing up this topic! Few people consider the environmental impact of of livestock when thinking about climate change or pollution in general. In addition to climate change implications, many livestock farms, poultry in particular, have other adverse affects on the environment. I lived on the Chesapeake Bay and worked with several water keepers in college, and Perdue Chicken manure was one of the largest detriments to the Bay. More information about this particular case can be found in Washington Post article published in 2010 [1].

    1. Fahrenthold, D.A. “Perdue, poultry farm sued for polluting Chesapeake Bay.” Washington Post, March 2nd, 2010.

  5. Eric, great topic! Most people don’t know the impact cattle and poultry production have on the environment. Unfortunately, most of the solutions to this problem require a major, almost historic, change in consumer behavior that is unlikely in the short amount of time we have to stop irreversible climate change.

    Most of the population in Western countries have meat and poultry as par of their normal diet. Although there has been a major impulse for consuming more fruits and vegetables, the current concept of a balanced diet does not exclude eating animals and the effects of eating meat on the human body are, at best, unclear [1].

    The other alternative is to create tissue. However, public opinion is completely against modified food. The experience of the food industry with GMOs show how reluctant people is willing to accept technology in their plates [2].

    I was wondering if Tyson has analyzed opportunities to reduce the carbon footprint of their production. Buying a vegan food start-up seem a very small step for a company the size of Tyson’s and it could almost a publicity stunt to deviate attention of the environmental practices in their main business.


  6. One argument I hear in favor of red meat is the amount of protein introduced into your diet. Beef contains about 26 g of protein per 100 g of meat. However, it takes 8 grams of feed for the cow to increase weight by 1 gram. I wonder if a mainstream brand like Tyson started working to develop products that contained more efficient and better sources of protein, if that could also be an alternative. For example, crickets contain 21 g of protein per 100 grams of cricket. More importantly, a cricket increases 1 gram in weight every 2 grams of feed it consumes – significantly better than beef [2]. The disadvantage insects have over red meat is in packaging. Nobody in America wants grab a fist full of crickets and chow down. I wonder if Tyson could take advantage of it’s processed food capabilities to 1. supplement food on the market with more efficient and less environmentally damaging sources of protein or 2. make insects more appealing to the general population through breading and deep frying.


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