Recent developments in the North Carolina hog industry have opened new doors to the world marketplace for gourmet foods. Near Smithfield, NC, the Ivey brothers, using the best animal science, have significantly helped to expand NC pork exports by creating “silky pork,” that suits the tastes of Japanese customers. Named for the characteristic white bands of fat that run through the meat, “silky pork” defines the American spirit. The Ivey brothers are entrepreneurs with a new product for the hog industry. “Silky pork,” can be the future of the hog industry, and by extension, a great boon to North Carolina.
Yet in the face of this development, we must not forget the alternative side of hog production. Namely, hogs produce a lot of waste, and how that waste is managed has a direct effect on the communities and people of eastern North Carolina.
Housing thousands of animals, a typical hog farm generates the sewage equivalent of a small town. Gaseous pollutants and odors are released to the atmosphere, while both solid and liquid hog wastes are pumped into ponds (known as lagoons) which may be many acres in size. From these lagoons, liquefied hog waste is regularly sprayed onto nearby agricultural land, much of which is in close proximity to homes, schools, churches, and businesses. Even when operating as permitted, runoff can contaminate surface and ground water, with direct effects on public health.
Emissions of gases and particulate matter from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) impact human and environmental health as well. Those who live near large hog CAFOs see higher levels of asthma and reduced immune system functions, as well as increased reports of headaches, eye irritation and nausea. Waste that enters waterways causes algal blooms that deplete oxygen, resulting in the death of fish and other marine life. When lagoons overflow, as during Hurricane Floyd, the waste can enter waterways and impact local health, and environmental and wildlife systems.
Serious impacts from swine waste pollution through emissions and discharge of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, nitrates, pathogens, antibiotics, methane, and odor must be reduced before increasing hog production in North Carolina. Since 1997, a moratorium on new permits for hog waste lagoons has been in place. But, virtually all the farms responsible for raising 10 million hogs in North Carolina were “grandfathered” and must meet only the earlier standards. The problem is exacerbated when local production is acquired by foreign producers, such as the purchase of Smithfield Foods, by a company in China. We should embrace opportunities to succeed with new ideas, but not at a cost to the quality of life, health, or environmental conditions of our citizens.
The best technology to produce pork was identified under the Smithfield Agreement in 2000. Environmentally Superior Technologies, or ESTs, were identified through extensive scientific studies addressing hog-farm pollution. These ESTs can partially mitigate much of the human health and environmental concerns, but ESTs cost more to install and operate than lagoons. Without ESTs, the full social economic costs of hog-waste treatment are not included in the pork production business model. To do so would require direct recognition of the hazards of current waste management practices. North Carolina should only raise more “Silky Pork” if it does so sustainably. However, if we lower our environmental and human health standards, we will be repeating the impacts to human health and the environment recognized a decade ago.
As we rise to the challenge of feeding more than 9 billion fellow citizens of the world, the ancillary impacts of our food production systems will be severe and widespread unless we take action. We must not forget the importance of regulations that protect environmental quality (air, water, and soil), even if ignoring them advances the competitive position of our agricultural production. Our hog industry should benefit all the citizens of North Carolina, not simply the pockets of a few, and not at the expense of our environment and health.
This contribution was written jointly by Saurabh P. Aneja and William H. Schlesinger, graduate student and Dean (Emeritus) at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, and Viney P. Aneja in the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at N.C. State University
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