North Carolina is the second largest pig product producer in the nation, just behind Iowa. It supports over 44,000 jobs and brings in $10 billion annually for our state as of 2019. But the benefits seem to end at economics-- the hog industry is wreaking havoc on local communities and the environment. So what exactly is happening?
Hog farming in NC is historically a huge moneymaker, supporting the state economically as a whole and especially the counties of Duplin, Bladen, Sampson, and Wayne, where in some areas, pigs outnumber residents 40-to-1. Bladen county even contains the world’s largest pork processing plant. These farms and plants create over 10 billion gallons of waste annually, including feces, urine, and blood, and management systems must be created to accommodate.
Two common methods of waste disposal for these massive establishments are open-air lagoons and sprayfields. An open-air lagoon is a large vat that retains these wastes. They’re located outside of farms near feed-growing fields-- large ponds of gore and muck, bared to the elements. This method creates the risk of waste and contaminants seeping into the ground and leaching into water tables in surrounding areas, potentially toxifying entire water supplies. Sprayfields are agricultural fields used to grow feed for livestock, and are fertilized by spraying this waste overtop of them. This aerosolizes the waste and allows it to waft into open areas.
Residents nearby these facilities have testified that these disposal methods create a smell like “rotting flesh,” and this stench can become so thick it will make your eyes water and your nose run. They also create an abundance of health issues, including high rates of asthma and fatal cases of cancer. People of color are statistically more likely to live in these areas than white people, meaning that they bear the brunt of the health consequences. There is also a strong correlation of residents encountering higher rates of depression, diarrhea, sarcoidosis, and arrhythmia. The aforementioned Bladen county houses a Black population of over 30%, meaning that Black people are disproportionately feeling the effects of these illnesses.
This is all not to mention the impacts of severe weather events. Each of these four main counties are located close to the coastline, meaning when hurricanes come inland, livestock are endangered. Thousands of pigs are killed in flooding events, and waste retention lagoons overflow, contaminating entire areas with bacteria-filled sludge runoff and dead bodies. These bodies need to be disposed of somehow, and are often thrown in landfills to decompose and give off methane gas, contributing to climate change.
A proposed solution to the excessive and harmful waste issue is to burn it and turn it into biofuel gas. This would provide energy as a byproduct of pork production, and allow facilities to run off of their own waste. However, biofuel gases made from pig farm waste would emit methane, carbon dioxide, and harmful contaminants into the atmosphere, also contributing to climate change, as well as the already prevalent pollution and health problems these establishments create. Suffice to say, this approach wouldn’t “solve” anything.
Pig farms in NC also use between 6 and 10 million gallons of water daily, amounting to anywhere from 10-20% of all agricultural water use in the state annually. A lot of this water is used for the animals to drink, to clean them and cool them off, and to maintain facility “sanitation.” This is not to mention the massive amounts of water it takes to grow feed for them. Due to this, it can take up to almost 600 gallons of water to produce one pound of pork.
In the United States, sources state that anywhere from 10-18% of all greenhouse gas emissions come from livestock production as of 2019. Pork production accounts for about 9% of this, and while that may seem like a small number, it accounts for the release of about 47 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year. One single metric ton is the size of a house (see below for a visual). Think about 47 million of those being created every year!
This massive amount of CO2 is created through many different aspects of the pork industry. The first thing to pop into your head may be animal flatulence, but that’s only a portion of the real contributions made to climate change by the pork industry. A lot of these emissions come from having to grow enough food for the livestock, manure management, and energy use.
Even excluding the animal cruelty aspect of these facilities, it is evident that they’re just plain terrible for the surrounding communities and environment. Water is used in amounts of high excess, pollution and contamination run rampant, climate change is worsened, and sickness spreads due to their existence. Take caution, dear consumer. Eat locally, sustainably raised meat/dairy if possible when you desire it. But otherwise a plant based diet is the way to go when accessible!