With a market cap of over $28B and 2016 revenues of over 36B, Tyson foods is one of the largest meat producers in the world. Beef (38% of sales), and Chicken (30% of sales), comprise the largest portion of Tyson’s production. Especially at Tyson’s scale, changes in climate that make meat production more challenging pose serious risks to its core business.
How Climate Change can Affect Meat Production
Among other factors, climate change can negatively affect the availability and price of grain used to feed livestock, as well as animal health, growth, and reproduction.
Extreme heat events, (series of days that are unusually hot), are a powerful outcome of climate change that harmfully influence both of these factors. For example in 2015, Tyson was forced to close a cattle plant in Iowa due to a drought that limited pastures for grazing. Additionally, extreme heat has caused “heat stress” in livestock, leading to reduced feed intake, growth rate, embryo survival, and increased susceptibility to disease. In extreme cases heat events can lead to death, such as a recent heat wave in San Joaquin Valley California that killed thousands of cows.
Extreme heat events are growing globally due to climate change. Fifteen of the sixteen warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2000, and in the United States, unusually hot summer days and nights have become more common, nearly doubling on average since 20002. Additionally, extreme heat events are projected to become more common and more severe by the mid-21st century2.
How Tyson is Responding
To keep animals healthier and combat extreme heat in the short term, Tyson is investing in new programs and expanding best practices to its farmers. In 2017 Tyson rolled out a high-touch animal-welfare program, expanding video-auditing of plants and training animal well-being specialists and third party agencies to audit animal conditions on supplier farms. Tyson also officially supports a system of housing standards for animals, encouraging farmers to employ best practices in climate control that could mitigate severe changes in temperature.
Tyson is not just a victim of climate change, it is also a contributor. In fact, animal agriculture is estimated to contribute as much as 18% of global greenhouse-gas emissions. In 2011, Tyson estimates they contributed 5.2 million metric tons of of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. In order to avoid exacerbating the issues it is creating for itself, Tyson is adopting long-term measures to curb its contributions to climate change at all steps in the supply chain. It is continuously streamlining its transportation footprint (eliminating 145 million trucking miles in 2012 in part by switching to rail), investing in sustainable packaging, creating a web-based energy efficiency management system, and more. Tyson is also investing in meat-alternatives as a long-term bet on moving meat production away from animal-agriculture. Tyson keeps track of efforts in annual sustainability report, and in May of 2017 Tyson announced a partnership with the World Resources Institute to develop outcome-based water conservation targets for its operations and the company’s supply chain.
What Other Courses of Action Tyson Should Consider
While Tyson’s long-term sustainability efforts are a step in the right direction, their short-term response to extreme heat events could be more robust. In 2016, Tyson sourced cattle from over 3,700 individual suppliers. The company itself has rigorous standards for its owned and operated animal processing plants, but it does not in fact own or operate any feedlots. Cattle conditions in this first step of the supply chain – before they are shipped to Tyson – are somewhat influenced by Tyson. There are controls for nutrition, handling, and rearing of animals imposed via auditing from third parties and Tyson trained animal-welfare specialists, but support for climate-control and temperature regulation is not as robust. Tyson recommends that its suppliers follow animal-housing guidelines from national programs such as the BQA (Beef Quality Assurance) and the Livestock Marketing Association, but it does not take the extra steps to enforce these guidelines. For instance, constructing shelters with adequate windflow and sprinkler systems are important steps to preventing overheating. Tyson should do a better job spreading and enforcing these best practices, as well as centralizing development of new, efficient technology to help farmers improve their own systems at the bottom of the chain. Efficiencies in housing technology will result in higher productivity from farmers, lower costs and increased supply for Tyson, as well as long-term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
As Tyson looks forward, two questions may have outsize impacts on their strategies to handle climate change. First, how dramatically will extreme heat events increase in the near-term? Predictions offer rough estimations, but not without a degree of uncertainty. Second and perhaps more critically, will Tyson’s investments in plant-based meat become cost-effective enough to change consumer behavior? How will this change the demand for animal-based meat?
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 Tyson Foods, inc. “Form 10-K 2016.” Web. 11 Nov. 2017.
 Environmental Protection Agency, and Center for Disease Control. “Climate Change and Extreme Heat.” Oct. 2016, www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-10/documents/extreme-heat-guidebook.pdf.
 Soderlin, Barbara. “Denison, Iowa, Tyson Foods Beef Plant a Casualty of Too Few Cattle.” Omaha World-Herald, 20 Aug. 2015.
 Mapham, and Vorster. “Heat Stress in Cattle.” pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1682/5abed07858a10c2f88525ba2638ba4d1f9a8.pdf.
 Associated Press. Thousands of Cows Die in California Heat Wave; Disposing Them Becomes a Problem. Los Angeles Times, 8 July 2017, www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-cattle-deaths-20170708-story.html.
 “Tyson Foods Rolls Out High Tech High Touch Animal Welfare Program.” Tyson Media Releases, Tyson Foods, 21 June 2017, www.tysonfoods.com/media/news-releases/2017/06/tyson-foods-rolls-out-high-tech-high-touch-animal-welfare-program.
 “Animal Housing.” Tyson Foods, www.tysonfoods.com/responsible-food/animal-well-being/animal-housing.
 FAO, 2006. Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
 “SUSTAINABILITY REPORT.” Tyson Foods: Transparency, www.tysonsustainability.com/2012/section-4/4_5.
 Strom, Stephanie. “Tyson Foods, A Meat Leader, Invests in Protein Alternatives.” New York Times, 10 Oct. 2016.
 “Tyson Foods: Transparency.” Tyson Foods: Transparency, www.tysonsustainability.com/.
 “Tyson Foods Teams with World Resources Institute on Industry Leading Environmental Goals for Its Supply Chain.” ir.tyson.com/investor-relations/news-releases/news-releases-details/2017/Tyson-Foods-Teams-with-World-Resources-Institute-on-Industry-Leading-Environmental-Goals-for-its-Supply-Chain/default.aspx.
 Tyson Foods: Transparency: About Tyson, www.tysonsustainability.com/about-tyson-foods.
“Caring for Animals during Extreme Heat.” Agriculture Victoria, Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources, 24 Oct. 2017, agriculture.vic.gov.au/agriculture/animal-health-and-welfare/animal-health/animals-in-hot-conditions/caring-for-animals-during-extreme-heat.