When you picture a farm, what do you see? Many of us might imagine a bucolic country setting with animals grazing peacefully in the fresh air on a pastoral hillside. And while that’s a lovely image, it’s nothing more than fantasy for those living in and around modern factory farms. Today, most animals raised for food in the U.S. are the unfortunate victims of business practices that put profits ahead of animal treatment, the environment, local communities, and human health.
Pig factory farms have been expanding rapidly in a number of states, including North Carolina, and tremendous damage follows in their wake.
Enormous agribusiness interests (sometimes referred to as “Big Ag”) spend heavily on lobbying local and state governments to prop up their otherwise unsustainable business practices, despite the fact that these practices have a decidedly negative impact on the communities around them. In North Carolina, Big Ag lobbying has been so effective that legislators voted to override the governor’s veto to pass a bill that protects industrial pig farms against the humans who live in the nearby communities who are affected by their harmful practices.
What is a CAFO?
It’s estimated that there are 9 million pigs in North Carolina, and most of them are bred and kept in large-scale, industrialized facilities known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. The Environmental Protection Agency defines a large CAFO as one containing 10,000 or more pigs (each under 55 pounds) within a confined space.
CAFOs produce pollutants that leak into ground and drinking water, fill the air with toxins, and are major contributors to climate change. Many people don’t realize that factory farms consume a great deal of polluting energy from oil and gas, and at the same time, produce methane, which is considered a greenhouse gas. A large quantity of methane in the atmosphere is produced by CAFOs that build waste lagoons or pink slurry slime pools to dispose of urine and manure. Pink slime pools create tons of methane4; methane absorbs the sun’s heat and makes the atmosphere hotter; and a hotter atmosphere leads to climate change.
And the damage CAFOs cause doesn’t stop there. Farm workers in these facilities are also treated with little regard. CAFO workers are not provided with protective clothing, yet they are regularly exposed to toxic dust and ammonia, among other airborne pollutants. They have a higher rate of sickness from respiratory illnesses and psychological trauma than other people who work in confined conditions. And workers at CAFOs can carry toxic dust out into the community and cause the people around them to get sick as well. In other words, CAFOs are so toxic that local communities have to face many challenges just to survive.
It’s clear: CAFOs harm animals, their employees, nearby communities, wildlife, and the surrounding environment with their business practices. Looking at the bigger picture, they also harm our planet at large, with gas emissions that have negative effects on the global climate.
About Those Neighbors
Far from the idyllic, spacious pastures that are shown in advertisements for meat, milk, and eggs, factory farms consist of large numbers of animals being raised in extreme confinement. Animals on CAFOs are regarded only as commodities to be exploited for profit, rather than treated as the sensitive, sentient beings they are.
For North Carolina’s pigs, CAFOs are torture chambers. Pigs are natural roamers, wanting to explore, to forage, to dig and root, looking for underground goodies. When free to behave naturally, pigs are far less stressed than they are when they’re constantly confined indoors, as they are in CAFO facilities.
Pigs are very intelligent animals, thought to be smarter than dogs with intelligence that rivals that of 3-year-old children. Further, they can even be taught to play video games. But even so, pigs are subjected to such nightmarish conditions in CAFOs that they never are able to know the feel of land under their feet or have space to roam and explore in the way that comes naturally to them. According to CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories, the living conditions for pigs in CAFOs consist of “…1,000 to 2,500 animals in a single building, with as many as 20 hogs crammed inside pens no bigger than a bedroom, with no straw, no mud, and absolutely no way to be a pig. A CAFO hog lives out its short miserable life on a hard concrete surface…”
When free to move about, a pregnant pig will typically look for a quiet, private place to deliver her piglets. But in a CAFO, a breeding sow will instead be forcibly impregnated and either crated or tied down in a gestation crate that’s so small she can barely move. Once she is close to giving birth, she is transferred to a farrowing crate where she is similarly confined. She is forced to give birth, nurse her piglets, eat, and defecate all in a space so cramped that she can’t even turn around. In a natural setting, pigs love to create elaborate, cozy nests for themselves and their families, but a mother pig in a CAFO never gets the chance to build a nest. She isn’t permitted to fully raise her offspring, since they are prematurely taken from her. And once they’re taken away, she is impregnated again to repeat the cycle over and over until she is considered “spent” and sent to slaughter.
Pigs raised for meat live short, miserable lives; slaughter weight is typically reached when they’re about 6 months old. Taken from their mothers too early and then raised in horrific and cramped conditions, they live a life of industrialized cruelty and trauma before being killed for meat. A CAFO pig never knows joy, never knows love, and never knows anything but suffering and misery.
The Pink Stink
Living near a CAFO negatively affects local residents’ quality of life. People who live in towns near these factory farms are often forced to keep their windows closed and remain indoors because of foul stenches. In a study of one town in the vicinity of a major factory farm, a third of the residents reported that their daily activities were affected by the presence of the operation.
These are communities where people have lived their entire lives, some on land that has been passed down for generations — only to see CAFOs move in and harm the air quality, the health of nearby lakes and streams, and their property values. CAFOs disrupt the quality of life in these communities and, quite frankly, they stink up the place. Most of the people affected are poor.
Pigs in CAFOs produce millions of tons of waste each year. Where does it go? These operations flush urine and feces out to slurry lagoons, which become pink from bacteria that colonize in the waste. These pink slurry pools contain parasites, viruses, drugs, and antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as well as high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus, which can kill fish and encourage algae blooms in nearby waterways. Lax regulations and ever-increasing severe storms and hurricanes cause these pink slime pools to overflow and spill into nearby lakes and streams that provide drinking water to surrounding communities.
These pink slurry pools contain a manure mixture that has very little of the oxygen needed for decomposition, and therefore, they putrefy into toxic pools of slime. CAFOs will spray this pink waste over nearby fields in an effort to prevent the slurry lagoons from overflowing. But when the spray gets caught by a breeze and blows in the direction of nearby neighborhoods, the stench is overwhelming. “The most typical pollutants found in air surrounding CAFOs are ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and particulate matter, all of which have varying human health risks,” reports Carrie Hribar of the National Association of Local Boards of Health.
Toxic dust originating from CAFOs gets carried to people’s lawns, gardens, and even inside their homes, where it coats surfaces where dust commonly settles. This dust contains disease-causing bacteria, among other particles that can affect overall health. Local residents have reported raw, caustic odors that give them headaches, coughing fits, and nausea, and cause their eyes to burn. In fact, studies have concluded that people living in communities with CAFOs are at a higher risk for asthma and other respiratory and pulmonary diseases. Additionally, people who live and work in or near CAFOs have experienced mood disorders, high blood pressure, bronchitis, cardiac arrest, and even death.
Recent studies conclude that communities with a concentration of CAFOs show a tendency to decline economically and socially, resulting in decreased property values. Naturally, small businesses are disinclined to open up shop in a town where CAFO stench wafts down Main Street. Similarly, people looking for a country setting in which to live and raise a family will shun an area plagued by terrible smells and serious health concerns stemming from CAFO-related toxic waste.
“Most landowners fear that when CAFOs move into their community their property values will drop significantly,” writes Hribar. “There is evidence that CAFOs do affect property values.
The reasons for this are many: the fear of loss of amenities, the risk of air or water pollution, and the increased possibility of nuisances related to odors or insects. CAFOs are typically viewed as a negative externality that can’t be solved or cured. There may be stigma that is attached to living by a CAFO.”
Who’s in Charge?
With so many health and economic issues plaguing communities affected by factory farms, one might reasonably expect local and state lawmakers to step in and establish rules and regulations to protect citizens. But North Carolina’s state legislature seems to be doing little to help its constituents. In fact, in 2016, the North Carolina legislature enacted a law banning photographs and the collection of information at workplaces, including farms and slaughterhouses, and specifically targeting whistleblowers who seek to release such information to the public. In response to this unconstitutional ruling, Farm Sanctuary and other groups filed a lawsuit challenging this “ag-gag” law. In May 2017, a federal judge motioned to dismiss the case on procedural grounds, arguing that the groups could not demonstrate that the law posed them any injury. In response, the coalition has filed an appeal.
Citizens have a right to know how their food is produced, and the court should uphold this right in North Carolina as it has in other states.