Our Daily Meat
An Investigation at North Carolina’s Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations
Americans consumed 275lb of meat in 2010. That is more than 341 grams each day. Most Americans do not know - or care to know - where their daily meat comes from. The truth is: in the United States, 79% of pigs are raised on farms with 2,000 pigs or more. These large factory farms are known under their abbreviation CAFOs - Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. North Carolina has around 4,000 CAFOs that account for about 15% of the US pork production.
The CAFOs in North Carolina
North Carolina used to have a strong tradition of family farming with about 22,000 small family-owned farms. In the late 1980s, however, the big swine industry moved into the state and built a large number of animal production facilities to industrialize the production of meat. Due to the influence of the big hog companies (Smithfield, Cargill, Tyson etc.), family farmers became financially pressured to either give up their farms or contract with the companies. In the latter case, the company owns the animals and the feed, but the farmer has ownership of the land, barns and waste disposal. Today, there are 550 CAFOs in the Neuse River area and 4,000 in the entire state of North Carolina. This makes it the number two pork-producing state after Iowa. Most of the facilities are located in low-income African-American and Hispanic areas, which means that people with little political influence are affected by social injustice, environmental pollution and health hazards from the CAFOs. They are usually too poor to move away and have no voting rights.
Impacts on the Environment and Peoples’ Lives
The 10 million hogs in North Carolina produce more waste every day than the entire German population (about 82 million). The waste facilities of the factory farms are manure pools - or "lagoons" as they are called. The factory farms use their surrounding property as "spray fields" to disperse the liquid waste. Although the CAFOs have to keep the waste on their property, much of it runs off of over-watered fields into the near-by rivers and streams and finally into the Neuse River (see picture above). As a consequence, this river, which is a source of recreation and a host to an abundance of wildlife, has lost its biological balance over the last 20 years: The manure works as fertilizer for the algae in the river. The overgrowing algae deplete the water of oxygen, killing the wildlife in the river. Two of the largest fish kills in the United States happened as a result of these factory farming practices in the Neuse River: In 1991, one billion fish died, and another 100 million in 2009.
Another dangerous consequence of the release of manure into the river is the emergence of Pfiesteria. This one-cell bacterium reacts to the chemical imbalance in the water and begins to attack the fish by paralyzing and slowly consuming it. Fishermen in the area have reportedly been victims of the bacteria, which cause large open wounds, skin lesions and sores in humans.
Last, but not least, the animals are fed anti-biotic at below-lethal doses every day. This ultimately leads to anti-biotic-resistance in the hogs, workers, as well as insects and small animals living on the CAFO. The meat is contaminated with growth hormones and steroids which are also added to the feed. The feed itself often consists of corn (to fatten the animals). 85% of corn in the US is genetically modified.
Lack of Legislation and Enforcement
The Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation is a non-profit NGO that monitors thepollution of the Neuse River. According to the Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation, the main reason why the hog industry was able to create this stronghold in the state is the lack of political regulation: In North Carolina, there is no legislation regulating mass production of animals, including the protection of workers, animals and the environment. The animal protection rights that apply to pets like dogs do no apply to farm animals. The North Carolina Pork Council, the second largest lobbying group in the state, exercises pressure on politicians in order to keep regulations lax. As a result, new stricter legislative approaches on the matter get delayed, ignored or rejected. Enforcement is minimal likewise as state agencies are under-staffed, lack equipment and have to request access to the factory farms for inspection. For example, they do not have any light planes to monitor and document illegal discharge of wastewater from the air.
Activities of the Riverkeeper Foundation
The Riverkeeper Foundation was founded in 1980. The main goal of the organization is protecting the Neuse River through monitoring and documentation of illegal environmental pollution. The river keepers document the facilities, collect and analyze water samples, compile data, inform national and international activists, organize educational outreach and, most importantly, pursue legal action against the facilities. Due to the lack of state legislation, the only legislation under which they can file lawsuit is the federal Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA allows for citizen lawsuits to enforce the legislation. One of the most important goals is the ban of the current spray field system that destroys the Neuse River ecosystem.
The lax political regulation and enforcement is the main reason that factory farms continue to pollute the environment. The Clean Water act is the only real legislation they can use to fight the hazardous practices of industrialized farming. These go beyond the contamination of the watershed: air and water pollution, the destruction of the fragile eco-system in the North Carolina wetlands, social injustice through the loss of the original family farming structure for the sake of the financial bottom line of big corporations, health hazards such as antibiotics-resistance, the cruel treatment of the animals on the farms and ultimately a very poor quality of meat. The promise of better employment, affordable food for everybody and better, more efficient farming practices has become the perverted version of the American dream.
Improving this situation will take much time and effort. And the obstacles are high: Environmental legislation and enforcement is weak, the pressure on lawmakers from civil society is low, while the factory farming companies employ brigades of lobbyists to influence legislation in their favor. Informing the public about the dangers and "invisible" and long-term costs of these farming practices is a first and important step. The most important step would be the implementation and enforcement of animal and worker protection rights, a state-wide requirement for environmentally friendly and sustainable alternatives to the lagoon-and-spray-field-system of waste disposal, Freedom of Information for all mass farming operations (including chicken) and compensation for everyone whose health, livelihood and quality of live is damaged or destroyed by the farming practices of the big hog factories.