Tyson Foods steps up sustainability efforts with Environmental Defense Fund partnership

By Mary Ellen Shoup

- Last updated on GMT

Tyson Foods latest sustainability partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund will focus on quantifying and reducing nitrogen loss of corn feed production.  Photo: Tyson Foods
Tyson Foods latest sustainability partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund will focus on quantifying and reducing nitrogen loss of corn feed production. Photo: Tyson Foods

Related tags Tyson foods Sustainability

On its endeavor to be a leader in sustainable food production, Tyson Foods has partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to accelerate its environmental stewardship targets -- such as, reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 30% by 2030 -- and meeting increasing consumer demand for sustainable food products.

As one of the largest animal protein companies in the world representing a 21% market share of the entire US animal protein market -- processing upwards of 41 million lbs of chicken per week and selling one out of every five pounds of chicken, beef, and pork sold in the US each week -- Tyson Foods wants to use its scale and size to its advantage.

"Our size and scale gives us the position to really sustainably feed the world,"​ Justin Ransom, senior director of sustainable food strategy at Tyson Foods, told FoodNavigator-USA. 

According to Ransom, the company's focus on reducing GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions across its supply chain starts at the farm level where the company is working to improve the environmental practices across two million acres of farms growing corn (used for animal feed). 

"We chose to focus on land stewardship as feed and fertilizer is one of the leading contributors of emissions in our supply chain,"​ Ransom said.  

Partnership with EDF

To measure and reduce GHG emissions throughout 500,000 acres of farms growing corn, Tyson Foods partnered with EDF, which has developed a system for calculating nitrogen (a greenhouse gas) released into the atmosphere through a pilot program using cloud-based agricultural technologies from MyFarms and Farmers Business Network (FBN).

Both cloud-based technologies collect information on agricultural production practices and provide insights from the analysis of that data that will inform sustainability practices at the field level.

"EDF has been investing a lot of time and effort in something called 'Nitrogen Balance', and that basically flips the tables on things,"​ Jenny Ahlen, director, EDF+Business, supply chain at EDF said.

"What you do is measure how much nitrogen is applied both from synthetic​ [fertilizer] and manure as sources, and then you look at how much is being removed from the field from crops and crop residues. From that, you can figure out how much nitrogen is not being used by the plant and is therefore vulnerable to loss,"​ explained Ahlen. 

EDF will work with Tyson's farmers to understand and quantify nitrogen loss and determine what practices they can utilize to score a better 'Nitrogen Balance' score.

For example, nitrogen is often lost when there's a rain event where it's washed away and can volatilize into nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas, according to Ahlen.

"Typically what you want to do is help farmers make sure they're applying nitrogen at times when it's not likely to be washed away where crops have a chance to actually absorb it,"​ Ahlen said. 

How are consumers embracing sustainability in their day to day?

Sales of sustainable products are on the rise, growing 20% between 2017 and 2018, according to Nielsen, which said US consumers spent $128.5bn in 2018 on sustainable products (which includes free-from, clean, simple, sustainable and organic labels), up from $125.4bn in 2017.

Nielsen also found that nearly half of US shoppers (48%) said they are 'definitely' or 'probably' changing their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment. 

However, the efforts CPG companies such as Tyson are employing may not necessarily be on consumers' radar quite yet, but a sense of trust in a particular brand or product is vitally important, Ahlen said. 

"What they want is trust.​ Consumers don’t have the time nor the expertise to parse out all the details of all the different social and environmental impacts a product they buy has.

"They tend to be more reactive. Until someone tells them there’s problem, they assume it ​[a product] is safe, as they should.

"I think some of the work Tyson is doing is great, but not on the radar of consumers. But I think it is part of that bigger piece of trusting the food that you’re buying, trusting the companies that you're buying from, and doing what it takes to earn that trust."

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