When we talk about Americans' ever-increasing insatiable love for pork - especially bacon - on their plates, we also have to picture the supply side of that "food trend." In order to get 23.2 billion pounds of pork product to our breakfast, lunch, dinner and even dessert plates, hogs have been raised in increasingly confined quarters, and their mountains of waste must be dealt with. Figuring out what to do with all of that poop is much less a palatable proposition than figuring out what to do with all of the bacon.
In North Carolina, where several counties rank highest for pork sales and where at least 9 million hogs are raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), the fecal waste is gathered into lagoons and then sprayed over neighboring fields. For community members living nearby, like Elsie Herring, that means the air is putrid and when they head out to their front lawns, they can feel fecal mist raining down on their skin.
Feces slurry sprayed on a field. Adobe Stock / galam.
In Iowa, the top pork-producing state, this means putrid air - that arises from the waste that has dropped through slats in the floor to storage pits - is then blown with giant fans out of the CAFOs and into the air around neighboring homes. For people living there, their quality of life has diminished greatly, much as it has in North Carolina. It has also decreased their home values, for obvious reasons.
Americans' appetite for cheap pork shows no sign of flagging, and legislation shows no sign of regulating these facilities. In the past few months there have been some exciting new developments, however, all the result of grassroots activism on the part of community members fed up with their homes, nostrils and lungs under siege from our nation's passion for pork and the systems that big companies have devised for meeting demand.
- A ruling on April 26, 2018, found that Murphy Brown/Smithfield will have to pay $50 million in damages to the families who suffered from the odor, flies, buzzards and other issues caused by a neighboring hog operation. This was the first of 26 nuisance cases local residents have brought against the company, and the second case is moving forward even as local legislators try to prevent them. While the damages have since been reduced to $225,000 per person (due to a recently passed and interestingly-timed North Carolina "anti-nuisance" law that caps such penalties paid by agricultural entities), it remains an important precedent and sends a powerful message to these industry giants.
- North Carolina environmental justice groups and the advocacy group Waterkeeper Alliance recently settled with the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) over allowing "grossly inadequate & outdated" waste management systems to disproportionately affect African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. Now the DEQ will have to enact new policies that comply with federal civil rights laws. This is important because it not only addresses how quality of life is affected by CAFOs, but also who is generally affected. The answer is disenfranchised people, mostly poor people of color.
- Four residents in Northeast Iowa are filing a lawsuit against the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, demanding they enforce regulations on the air emissions from hog confinements "under existing state law," since hog waste is supposed to remain in the building waste pits "between applications." The suit hinges on definitions of poop. Does the foul air created by poop contain poop? Does it count as the poop itself? Talk to Elsie Herring of North Carolina.
There are other suits in the works in Pennsylvania and Kansas, and probably beyond that in the coming months.
What does this mean for consumers? For people who care about the quality of life for people in North Carolina and Iowa (and Pennsylvania and Kansas City and beyond)? The bottom line is that the amount of meat we're eating is unsustainable. To meet demand, meat corporations rely on "factory farming" and all of its problems - problems that go beyond the quality of life of the CAFOs' neighbors.
We should all be eating less meat. And when we do eat meat, we should be supporting small, sustainable producers, who are using integrated systems that don't rely on storing hogs' fecal waste in giant pits. And we should be supporting the efforts of groups like Waterkeeper Alliance, who are helping citizens raise their voices against the industrial livestock operations that are ruining their lives.
Read more about Waterkeeper Alliance.
Learn more about factory farming by watching The Meatrix.