Pig CAFOs in North Carolina
by Quinn Steven
North Carolina is one of the American strong holds for great barbecue, particularly for its pulled pork, ribs, and “pig pickin,” which is when a pig is smoked whole, then guests pick the meat right from the smoker.[i] Something has to supply the pork for all that barbecue; that’s where North Carolinian farms come in to play. North Carolina is one of the largest pork producing states in America; in 2012 that population was over 9.5 million hogs and approximately 2,400 swine facilities.[ii] These animals are not kept on your traditional family farm; instead they are raised on industrialized factory farms called AFOs, Animal Feeding Operations.
These AFOs are operations where animals are kept and raised in confined structures for more than forty-five days. If an AFO exceeds a certain size, it is called a CAFO, or a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation. Approximately 15% of AFOs meet the EPA’s size threshold to be called CAFOs, meaning they contain more than 1,000 animals in one facility. In North Carolina, an AFO can be classified as a CAFO with only 300 animals if the CAFO directly or indirectly disposes of waste into a body of water.[iii] Even though these AFOs and CAFOs are efficient uses of space, they also lead to a host of economic, environmental, health and humanitarian issues. For the scope of this blog, I will focus on the environmental and health impacts of CAFOs in North Carolina.
Where you have animals, you have waste. When CAFOs are introduced to an environment, they create an exorbitant amount of waste because hogs produce two to four times the amount of waste that a human can.[iv] On these AFOs and CAFOs, animals are fed with genetically modified corn and soybean based feed to fatten them up. They are also preemptively given antibiotics to prevent them from becoming ill. All of the chemicals in their food, the antibiotic resistant pathogens growing inside of them, and the noxious gases that these animals digestive tracts create as they try to digest the highly processed feed are released into the environment through the animals’ waste. CAFOs dispose of this waste using a “liquid slurry” process through which they build waste lagoons.[v] In North Carolina, these waste lagoons are especially threatening because of the state’s high water table, [vi] because it is more likely for the chemicals, pathogens, and animal waste to leech into the fresh water supply. Over the years this has occurred multiple times, one example was in 1995, 25 million gallons of animal waste spilled into North Carolina’s New River killing over 10 million fish and forcing the river and surrounding wetlands to be closed.[vii]
If the waste lagoons are not sufficient to completely dispose of waste, the CAFO managers will spray the waste over surrounding forests and fields, making the waste, pathogens, and harmful chemicals airborne. As a result, many CAFO workers contract respiratory conditions and pulmonary disorders, and studies have shown that children living in neighborhoods near CAFOs have a higher likelihood of developing asthma.[viii] Even the process of these animals producing waste is environmentally harmful. Because of how the animals’ digestive systems function, they produce methane gas and nitrogen dioxide when they expel waste. These gases are more potent greenhouse gases than carbon dioxide because they trap heat more efficiently. Altogether CAFO emissions make up about 7% of the United States’ contribution of greenhouse gases.[ix]
In addition to these environmental and health conditions attributed to CAFOs, there are also a host of social and humanitarian concerns associated with CAFOs, so why then does approximately 99% of meat in America come from this style of farming?[x] For one, these CAFOs supply the vast quantity of meat necessary for fast food companies to offer burgers on the dollar menu and to supply meat to the masses for very low costs. Although the individual cost for each farmer to operate a CAFO is very high, government subsidies and vertical integration make the system economically preferable for high executives in meat-producing companies. It is difficult for smaller farmers who work for the larger companies to transition to a more sustainable form of farming because often they have inherited these CAFO farms and incurred the coinciding debt. The farmer’s individual debt comes from buying into contracts with large companies, buying animals to support those contracts, and from having to regularly take loans that allow them to update their facilities according to the company’s standards.[xi]
While CAFOs may appear to be the cheapest, most efficient way to produce meat for the masses, this is because the social cost of producing the meat becomes an externality rather than included in the actual cost. If the economic value of the environmental impact, health impacts, and the government subsidies that make the prices of CAFO-produced meat cheap were added to the retail cost of the meat, consumers would suffer severe sticker shock.[xii] Similarly, CAFOs seem as if they could produce an infinite supply of meat for the world’s ever-growing population. This assumption is also false. If these methods of meat production are continued and even expanded, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, soon the land will be exhausted of its nutrients or made toxic from waste contamination.[xiii]
Rather than expanding CAFO meat production methods, the federal government should give subsidies and stimulus to more sustainable methods of agriculture. Currently, the US federal government provides approximately $5 billion in subsidies for less sustainable agricultural methods. Without those subsidies, food produced from conventionally grown crops and livestock would drastically increase in price.[xiv] If these subsidies were put toward more sustainable methods of food production instead of conventional ones, then more environmentally sound, humane food production methods would be encouraged and their resulting product would become increasingly affordable.
Sustainable agricultural methods can actually benefit the environment rather than cause harm. Sustainable livestock operations, for example, mitigate some health and environmental damages by forgoing chemical additives and antibiotics for their animals. They also produce significantly less waste than CAFOs by virtue of raising fewer animals. While more sustainable agricultural methods must raise fewer animals than CAFOs, they can still supply a substantial amount of meat.[xv] We cannot out-produce demand, especially as more countries develop economically and turn toward a diet containing more meat. Ultimately, the solution to the environmental and health issues of mass farming must come form populations adopting more vegetarian diets. While meat-based diets can negatively impact the environment, plant-based diets have significantly less environmental impact.[xvi] Therefore, we must fundamentally change people’s diets by increasing plant consumption while decreasing meat consumption to create a sustainable environment.
Your blog highlights some of the most pressing problems concerning North Carolina swine production. The problems with sanitation in North Carolina farms are even starting to affect the pigs: in 2015 the state suffered a severe onset of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus, which forced many farms to quarantine their pigs and dealt a blow to hog farmers across the state. This setback, however, does less to affect that price of pork nationally than it does to the international market. Indeed, the majority of NC pork isn’t consumed in the US, but on the Asian markets (Iowa supplies America’s pork, much to my chagrin). NC breeders specialize in producing pigs whose meat is classified as ‘silky pork’, a softer, sweeter variety that is the mainstay in Japan and some parts of eastern China. Thus, when considering subsidies on CAFOs, one most also consider what impact these would have on international trade. Would it be worth it to the United States to subsidize improvements to hog farms if those improvements would not directly affect the quality of meat in the United States? It would be very interesting, and I encourage you to research this further, to look at the effects the Pacific Trade Agreement will have on the hog industry in North Carolina.
I think it’s great the you chose to talk about CAFOs for your blog post—it’s such an important topic that I think is really overlooked! In one of my other classes called the Politics of Climate Change, we heard from a recent Harvard Law grad who talked about the environmental injustice issues surrounding CAFOs in North Carolina. I think an important part of the CAFO equation is that the majority of communities surrounding these feeding operations and poor and overwhelmingly african american. This means that african americans are disproportionately subjected to the host of health consequences you outlined. And what is more, accidents associated with CAFOs are projected to increase (such as flooding of waste lagoons) with global warming, because global warming will cause more severe weather events. This subjects these communities to even more environmental injustices. So not only is the issue dangerous to human health overall, it’s actually at it’s core an environmental justice issue. And these poorer communities that surround CAFOs often lack the resources or the knowhow to mobilize against the CAFOs—the very operations that are forcing them to stay inside because of the foul odor and flies, and subjecting them to water contamination due to lagoon flooding.
I really resonate with your point about subsidies. As we talk more and more this semester about whether or not a price reflects the true cost of the product, I have become a large supporter of incorporating all negative externalities into pricing. In this case, I am against the $5 billion of subsidies that you mention goes towards funding non-sustainable farming practices. There are so many struggling small farmers who cannot pay for marketing efforts such organic certification. And it seems like that $5 billion would be better suited towards funding these operations that are more environmentally friendly and socially responsible.
I also agree with the movement for a more plant-based diet. Although I don’t think that Americans will suddenly cut meat completely out of their diets, I believe that a strong educational program could encourage consumers to make smarter choices (eating more plant-based meals) for their health and the planet’s. This educational program could both come from curriculum as well as a media campaign. Not enough people know about the health effects of eating meat raised in CAFOS: increased greenhouse gas emissions, increased water pollution, increased air pollution (especially locally), increased antibiotic resistant pathogens, and more.
I think it’s beyond doubt at this point that CAFOs contribute significantly to emission of greenhouse gases, and that the solution lies with a nationwide change in mentality toward our diet. However, there are countless issues in our country that would be solved with a nationwide change in opinion, but have yet to enjoy such ubiquity and unanimity, and I don’t think CAFOs are any different in this respect. I’m also not sure about the feasibility of a sweeping national vegetarian/vegan movement; while it certainly isn’t impossible, we would have to overcome personal preferences, cultural backgrounds, traditions, established local markets… This is exactly like how, in a previous class discussion, we discussed how we students will demand mangoes despite the fact that mangoes are out of season in our area. As long as people know that the option exists, is favorable, and can be obtained (at little cost to themselves, anyway), it will be extremely difficult to convince them to regress to a state where that option no longer exists.
Rather than attempting to change the popularity of meat/meat products, I think it would be more feasible to continue pushing the organic food movement. We should focus on increasing availability of organic and/or locally-grown food, especially in urban areas where fresh, locally-grown food is hard to come by. A big contributor to this problem is the continued unaffordability of organic/locally-grown food, which in large part is due to the current government system of food subsidies, as you mention in your blog. Rather than the government waiting for greater demand in organic food before shifting their subsidies to organic food farmers, I think that, in order to see greater change in diet across the nation, the government should take the first step in shifting subsidies to support organic food; it’s difficult to convince people to begin or continue buying more expensive, supposedly-healthier options when the cost of these supposedly-healthier options does not seem to be decreasing. I understand that subsidies for intensively-farmed, inorganic foods and for systems like CAFOs are built not only on historical policies but also on current relations between the agricultural community and lawmakers, as well as actual demonstrated preferences of the common people; but I think that for the future of our country, both in terms of personal physical health and in terms of the wellbeing of the environment, it is important to begin taking steps to shape the national diet, both at the policy level and at the grassroots level.
With so many environmental issues plaguing the country, the problems in our very own backyard are often overlooked. I thought your blog did a great job of shifting our focus back on environmental degradation taking place within our own state and shedding light on the multi-faceted problem that is the pig industry and meat production. I was especially intrigued by the component of environmental justice as many neighboring communities are now experiencing health effects due to the nearby lagoons. Reminding me of Anderson, et al. v. Pacific Gas and Electric with Erin Brockovich, I found the subsequent health effects, and likely reduction in house values, an interesting component that is often forgotten to be taken into account in environmental costs. It seems as though the health costs experienced by neighboring communities should certainly be mentioned in labeling when consumers purchase the meat. Buying pork would no doubt be a more expensive option if approached through a holistic lens, not just including monetary measures. I think your suggestion of subsidies to promote sustainable agriculture is a good alternative. With the initial costs often being what prevents farmers from growing sustainably, subsidies may help to encourage environmentally friendly growing and production practices. Although drastic, I also appreciated your suggestion of vegetarianism as a solution. With such a myriad of issues from health problems, to waste disposal, to antibiotic resistance, to greenhouse gas emissions, a decrease in meat consumption would no doubt promote sustainable practices and at the very least, decrease the need for mass meat processing.
I really enjoyed this post, and I liked that you were able to clearly and thoroughly explain the environmental impacts of this hugely complex issue. I completely agree with your assessment that we will need to shift the world to more of a plant based diet – not only will the environment be positively affected, but also human health will improve as well as our ability to feed the world. Producing meat is incredibly energy intensive, much more so than producing non-meat crops and requires an incredible amount of water that fruits/vegetables do not. Though from a human health and environment stance, your proposal is pretty sound, there are definitely huge economic considerations that need to be made. For one, much of our economy is tied to food (especially meat production). Forgetting about even the huge companies producing meat themselves, we must consider secondary operations that rely on meat (restaurants, fast food, transportation, packaging, etc.). These industries would suffer if meat were removed and especially those who are employed by them (think about the many people employed by fast food restaurants in America). Nevertheless, I do think that with gradual policy changes, the culture in America and the rest of the world could change in such a way that will reduce our meat consumption.
I also agree that our subsidies for these huge farms are misplaced. While I also agree that smaller farms and sustainable agriculture need subsidies to encourage better practices, perhaps a policy could be imagined that would still provide subsidies to larger farms but only if their animal farming practices were made more sustainable. Since the farm bloc is so influential in politics, this may be a more middle ground policy that could induce them to practice better farming methods.
Your blog makes some fantastic points, most of which I think have been discussed by most of the comments at some point. One aspect of your discussion that I was especially interested in (which I think caught some of your other readers’ eyes as well) was the discussion about government subsidies supporting unsustainable practices. I think beyond changing individual diets or altering major trade agreements, showing the true cost of meat products across the U.S. could make a significant difference in our consumption practices. It is one thing for farmers to be producing meat at the cheapest rate in isolation, but it is a whole new argument to consider that these farmers are producing meat at the cheapest rate because the government manipulated market prices to make these unsustainable practices the cheapest option.
Your arguments about environmental justice and human and environmental health are undoubtedly compelling for anyone interested in protecting the environment, but unfortunately it seems that only the economic arguments have an impact at the executive level. I think the subsidy argument draining $5 billion from our government would be considerably convincing in an effort to reallocate resources and improve conditions across the board in the meat industry.
I think you highlight a very pressing problem not only in North Carolina but all of the US. Before taking this class and then reading your article, I had only ever viewed CAFOs from a humanitarian point of view. Knowing that excess waste from the CAFOs is spread across giant fields (and thus sprayed into the air) it utterly repulsive. I had also never considered the even bigger health effects that CAFO waste has like respiratory and pulmonary problems with children.
In class we discussed potential solutions for disposing CAFO waste, and even if we did find a way to dispose of waste, it is not a long-term solution. Like you stated in your blog and according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, soon all the land will be exhausted of its nutrients or made toxic from waste contamination.
However, I do like your shorter-term solutions. You propose that the government should change where subsidies are allocated. This is a wonderful idea in theory, however, if you have seen a film like Forks over Knives, it is easy to see that politicians have personal incentives that often trump what is best for the environment. They have special agreements with big factory farmers and get personal benefits for making policy in big farmers’ best interests. To change this, one would have to change the way the game of politics is played, and I don’t see an easy way to do this.
Thus, I like your last idea. We need to have a cultural change where our diets shift away from being so meat heavy and become more plant based. I have recently become a vegetarian, and it is a lot easier than people think. Even if people don’t ditch meat altogether but adopt something like meatless Monday, it could make a huge difference.
My first concern is about the change in classification [by the EPA] of an AFO to a CAFO if it directly or indirectly disposes of waste into a body of water. If the EPA is aware of AFOs disposing of waste in order for them to alter their classification, are they shut down or fined? What happened after the incident in 1995? What were the effects on the wildlife in the river and wetlands and what were the impacts on human health in the area? Did drinking water become contaminated?
In regards to your last paragraph, in an ideal world, everyone would shift to a more vegetarian diet. We would consume way less meat and all the awful effects you wrote about about would be mitigated. But, I think this is an extremely unfeasible possibility. As countries become more and more developed, they’re going to shift to a more meat based diet. With this being said, I have no idea how anyone wold be able to shift the meat eating paradigm across the world. Public awareness of the dangers of CAFOs may be a start but I think even the educated will continue eating meat.
CAFOs are hidden and are extremely hard to gain access to. Last semester I read a book called Omnivores Dilemma by Michael Pollan. A third of his book was attributed to the industrial food chain. He went to a CAFO but he was not let inside. I think if there were ‘glass walls’ or more imformation disclosure, people would really know what goes on in CAFOs and MAYBE change dietary practices. But the feasibility and likelihood of that is slim.
[i] Sisk, Taylor. “North Carolina Travel Guide: NC Barbecue,” Matt Barrett’s Travel Guides, Web. Accessed Feb 29, 2016.
[ii] Monson, S. (2010). “Earthlings.” Documentary. Nation Earth, Burbank CA.
[iii] Environmental Protection Agency. “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.” April 5, 2002.
[iv] Marks, Robin. “Cesspools of Shame: How Factory Farm Lagoons and Sprayfields Threaten Environment and Public Health,” NDRC, (July 2001): 7. Web. Accessed Mar 10, 2016.
[v] Sang, R.L (2010). “Understanding Ammonia Emissions from Swine Animal Feeding Operations in North Carolina.” North Carolina State University. Raleigh, NC.
[vi] Sang 2010
[vii] Marks, 40.
[viii] Wing, S., D. Cole, G. Grant. (2000). “Environmental Injustice in North Carolina’s Hog Industry.” Environmental Health Perspectives 108(3):225–231.
[ix] Cassuto, D.N. (2010). “CAFO Hothouse: Climate Change, Industrial Agriculture and the Law.Animals & Society Institute Policy Paper.” Web. Accessed Feb 29, 2016.
[x] Monson 2010
[xi] Ladd, A., B. Edwards (2002). “Corporate Swine, Capitalist Pigs: A Decade of Environmental Injustice in North Carolina.” Social Justice 29 (3): 26–46.
[xii] Cassuto 2010
[xiii] Steinfeld H, Gerber P, Wassenaar T, Castel V, Rosales M, de Haan C (2006). “Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues and Options.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (Rome, Italy): 390.Web. Accessed Mar 15, 2016.
[xiv] Urry, Amelia. “Our crazy farm subsidies, explained.” Grist. (April 2015). Web. Accessed Mar 18, 2016.
[xv] Larry Satter, “Amazing Graze,” Agricultural Research 48, no. 4 (April 2000).
[xvi] Smith, Carol. “New Research Says Plant-based Diet Best for Planet and People,” Our World. United Nations University. (November 2014). Web. Accessed Mar 16, 2016.