I grew up in Lexington, known for The Barbecue Festival. Like many households across the state, eating pork is a part of daily life. But I recently discovered just how harmful this consumption is to people’s lives.
North Carolina has two of the largest hog farms in the country, in Duplin and Sampson counties, with nearly 1.9 million and 1.8 million pigs, respectively. This is alarming when you consider research that shows that minority households are 1.39 to 2.18 times more likely to live near a hog farming facility than their white counterparts.
A type of hog farming known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, is prevalent throughout the state but is mostly concentrated in rural and lower-income areas. These operations are often described as a compact and windowless confinement—kind of like a more gruesome prison, in my opinion. It takes a process to make pork, and I believe that process is inherently flawed.
When it pertains to environmental degradation, large hog farms are polluting the air and water with hazardous chemicals, including carbon monoxide, methane, antibiotic residues and pathogenic bacteria. Some research suggests that there is an increased occurrence of respiratory illnesses, asthma, and even cancer among people living near hog farms. This is a systemic inequity that deserves more attention. Even though it may not affect your community directly, hog farms are often exempted from environmental standards that are linked to increases in environmental disruption, potential for disease outbreaks and, of course, environmental injustice.
Why all the poo?
It is estimated that pigs produce about 11 pounds of manure daily. This waste, just like human waste, has to be stored. However, while humans have an intricate sewage system, pigs do not. Pig manure is stored in on-farm lagoons, or small ponds. These lagoons overflow or are released into crop fields as fertilizer that goes on to emit toxic fumes. This method is known as the “lagoon and sprayfield method.” This spraying method is what often results in the reported air pollution. Also, lagoons can overflow and cause bacteria to contaminate water.
Stop pooping and clean it up
Whether you consume meat or not, I think that most people would not condone the harmful, nonconsensual exposure to manure in rural, minority communities. That is why it is important to understand that there are alternatives that we can explore as consumers and neighbors to clean up the mess that these corporate farms have caused. For example, changing the perception of produce farming could be crucial in helping residents and farmers control the waste problem at hog farms.
Currently, 99% of our meat comes from factory farms. Disregarding how you feel about the ethics of these operations, there is no refuting their environmental impact. Nor should it be any surprise that these farms are strategically placed in communities of color. Some people living close to hog farms have resorted to filing complaints and going to court to fight this environmental injustice. In fact, the courts ruled recently that Smithfield must award damages to neighbors of large hog farms. Hopefully, this opens up the door for more enforceable change that protects these communities and supports small farmers who push to implement more transformative change.
Pushing for change
The best way to combat hog farming is to advocate for alternative forms of agriculture. There is a strong indication that a shift from animal farming to a more crop- and plant-based system can yield greater benefits for food sustainability. This method would drastically decrease the waste produced by manure lagoons, thus lowering the adverse outcomes for the suffering communities. Supporting initiatives like The Food and Farm Act of 2023 can help accelerate these changes, which I support because it gives more power and incentives to the farmers to take back more control of their operations.
Moreover, individuals can also consume more plant-based products than pork. This will show a demand for food products to be produced that are more environmentally friendly. If we want to dismantle the predatory nature of hog farming in not only North Carolina but around the country, we need to advocate and look for methods that place pressure on these systems to change.
Atwater, W. (2022, December 6). From hogs to mushrooms: A family farmer fights to chart a new path. North Carolina Health News. http://www.northcarolinahealthnews.org/2022/12/06/from-hogs-to-mushrooms-a-family-farmer-fights-to-chart-a-new-path/
Barnes, G. (2020, December 4). Court rejects Smithfield’s arguments, giving low-income neighbors of hog farms hope. North Carolina Health News. http://www.northcarolinahealthnews.org/2020/12/04/neighbors-of-hog-farms-say-recent-appeals-court-ruling-gives-them-hope/
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About the author: Will Burnett lives in Winston-Salem and is a College Fellow for the New Roots Institute and a Master of Public Health student at the University of Utah.
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