North Carolina Hog Wars . . . Cheap bacon for China

North Carolina Hog Wars . . . Cheap bacon for China

Postby Oscar » Sun Jul 19, 2015 9:10 am

The world eats cheap bacon at the expense of North Carolina’s rural poor (photos)

[ ... ural-poor/ ]

July 14, 2015


Pork has always been important to North Carolina’s economy. It was among 16 commodities used as legal tender by colonists in the early 1700s, and for almost as long, farmers and their neighbors have been fighting over how the animals should be managed. Today, the industry accounts for close to $8 billion a year in revenue and 46,000 full-time jobs in production and processing, according to the North Carolina Pork Council, making the state the second largest pork producer in the US.

Accompanying all those swine is a lot of waste—hogs produce two-to-five times as much waste as humans. North Carolina does not release exactly how much manure is produced a year, and Smithfield declined to disclose how much its pigs produce, but estimates range between 15.5 million tons (pdf, p. 5) for the state’s top five pork producing counties to 2.53 billion gallons for the whole state. The nearly 2.3 million hogs raised in Duplin County generated twice as much waste as the entire city of New York (p.11) in 2007, the nonprofit Food and Water Watch estimates.

Hog wars

Residents, the industry, and its critics have been at an uneasy stalemate over the lagoons for the past fifteen years. Big industrial farms first started popping up in the 1980s. By the late 1990s, public concern turned to outrage when a series of lagoons overflowed during storms, submerging entire towns in waste. After that, armed protestors blocked construction of a new farm in Craven County, northeast of Duplin, and two hog farms in a neighboring county were riddled with bullet holes. But it wasn’t until a new hog farm and lagoon was proposed near the wealthy North Carolina golfing village, Pinehurst (right before it was to host the 1999 US Open), that lawmakers finally passed a statewide moratorium on the opening of new hog sites. The ban remains in place today.

Smithfield representatives say the company has gone beyond meeting state regulations on waste processing by setting up internal audits and reporting systems that provide local residents with a mechanism to file complaints. In 2000, Smithfield told the state it would spend $17 million researching waste management alternatives, with the aim of implementing new, “environmentally superior” technologies. But 15 years later, the lagoons remain. Legislators deemed that the alternatives—which cost as much as five times the current lagoon system—were too expensive to force Smithfield and local farms to adopt. Today, almost all of North Carolina’s 2,100-plus hog farms still store their waste in open lagoons, which can be as large as a football field.

“Industry is unhappy because they would like the ability to expand and build new farms and the environmentalists are unhappy because we still have these lagoons operating out there,” says Kelly Zering, a professor at North Carolina State University, who led part of the economic analysis of the alternative technologies in the Smithfield-funded research initiative.

The stalemate was broken in 2013 when the Chinese company Shuanghui, now known as WH Group, acquired Smithfield for $4.7 billion. The deal, the largest Chinese takeover of a US company ever, placed a national spotlight on pig farming, and provided plaintiffs with fresh impetus to revive their complaints about the lagoons.

Smithfield says the acquisition has made it a target for lawyers hoping for “a quick payday.” The first lawsuit arrived just two months after the takeover was announced in May, the company’s legal counsel points out. “This was out of the blue,” says Mark Anderson, Smithfield’s counsel. There were few records of the residents complaining to neighbors, the state, or to the company before then, he says. “Whether we’re right or not, we read into that a purpose.”

Parent WH Group also dismisses the nuisance claims. The company told Quartz that it is “aware of the allegations,” adding that “based on what we know now, we find them to be either wildly exaggerated, or in most cases, wholly unfounded and frivolous.”

The complainants say they have been raising their concerns to officials and the company for years. Branch, for example, has been a thorn in Smithfield’s side for the better part of the last two decades, rallying others through local community groups and making media appearances. Less vocal residents say they have been complaining for years as well.

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China’s arrival in North Carolina’s hog industry has aroused fear among local residents, but also provided critics of the lagoon system with fresh ammo. They argue that Smithfield, under Chinese ownership, will have to produce more pork to feed growing demand for the meat from China’s expanding middle class families, and that will mean more hogs and more waste.

For now, it is far from certain that will happen. Lawmakers have approved a bill that would allow some previously closed hog farms to reopen and use lagoons, but for now the moratorium and a quota system on the number of hogs per farm remain in place. One way farms can get around the restrictions, according to Zering, the NCSU professor, is by raising heavier hogs, which produce more waste. There’s data to support that thesis: Today, the average market hog in North Carolina is 27% heavier than it was in 1980. But fatter pigs, on their own, without any changes to the moratorium or quota system won’t move the needle much.

What is clear is that mistrust and a certain amount of xenophobia have complicated an already controversial issue. China’s role in the US hog industry is so polarizing that Smithfield’s lawyers have filed a motion to strike mention of “the Chinese government, Chinese corporations, and Chinese demand for and purchases of pork” from all proceedings in the nuisance suits. The lawyers argue that these references are “scandalous and clearly designed to inflame the jury and the public while taking advantage of xenophobic biases in today’s political landscape,” according to their court filing.

It’s undeniable that WH Group and Smithfield benefit from the low-cost lagoons. Today, raising hogs somewhere like North Carolina is almost 50% cheaper than in China where hogs are still bred on thousands of small farms. Lagoons, which require little manpower to operate, along with cheaper feed in the US, and the use of larger and more efficient CAFOs have helped lower costs. The average hog production costs in China more than doubled between 2002 and 2009. But in the US those costs fell by over a quarter (p. 24) between 1998 and 2009 as industrial hog farming and the accompanying lagoon system got underway in places like North Carolina.

Even Smithfield’s corporate owner in China uses what lagoon skeptics would call more advanced technology that North Carolina lawmakers deemed too expensive to force farms to use. WH Group’s seven pork farms in China—which produced just 311,000 sows last year, compared to Smithfield’s 14.7 million—use a dry manure removal process that separates the solids from the liquids and stores them in oxidized lagoons. Two of the farms use a digester system where the lagoons are covered and used to generate electricity.


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