Updated: May 3
Pork serves as a staple within the standard American diet and dominates the food industry as the third most consumed animal protein in the nation. In addition, the demand for animal products such as pork has skyrocketed with the globalization of the western diet. This in turn creates an even stronger incentive for large-scale industrialized pork manufacturers, such as Smithfield Foods and Triumph Foods, to optimize production and efficiency.
The mission of these companies is to produce as much pork as possible for the cheapest dollar. By turning a blind eye to ethical and sustainability concerns, these large-scale pork manufacturers have created a ripple effect of social, ecological, political, and health crises throughout the United States and abroad.
The industrialized pork-producing corporations’ irresponsible waste management practices, mistreatment of workers, and unsustainable pork production methods have led to degradation of biodiverse habitats, exploitation of communities of color, and long-term harmful environmental repercussions. This article will examine the systemic flaws of the industrialized pork industry by looking at one of the epicenters of American pork production in eastern North Carolina, where the negative effects of these corporations’ policies are highly evident. Pasture-raised, ‘sustainably sourced’ pork production will not be included within this critique, as large-scale pork production is creating the vast majority of the negative issues discussed in this article.
The industrialized pork industry’s disposal practice of pig waste has led to the destruction of the ecological landscape surrounding the pig factories, thereby negatively impacting the natural environment. Pigs excrete “11 pounds of manure per day, which is ten times the amount of an average human” (Christen, 2021). With hundreds of thousands of pigs condensed into mega-farms in eastern North Carolina, the state produces 15.5 million tons of pig waste per year (Christen 2021). The current system in North Carolina and most large-scale pig producing states to handle pig waste is the ‘lagoon and spray field system.’ Pig waste is put into giant lagoons in the surrounding environment and later used as fertilizer for crops. The fertilizer is sprayed onto nearby crops, allowing for pig manure to get into the air and affect nearby residents.
Pig manure “stored in lagoons leaches into the groundwater and soil, leading to soil degradation and polluting local water supply” (Christen 2021). The toxins from the pig waste pollute the foundations of the ecosystems it surrounds: the soil, air, and water. With these elements of the ecosystem disturbed, all other animals, plants, insects, and organisms are at a higher risk for termination. This pig-waste does not only harm local ecosystems, as the waste lagoons can easily overflow and spread across the landscape via hurricanes and storms. For example, “torrential rains from Hurricane Floyd caused a number of lagoons to overflow, creating a 350-mile dead zone awash with thousands of dead hogs and 25 million gallons of their waste” (NCEJN, 2019).
Large corporate pig producers find it easier to consolidate their means of production into one area, so the endless stream of pig waste has plagued the natural environment of places such as eastern North Carolina.
Soil, plants, and animals are not the only organisms affected by pig waste pollution, as many rural communities, disproportionately communities of color, throughout eastern North Carolina have been negatively impacted by the large-scale pork industry.
Pig waste, especially in large quantities, is extremely detrimental to human health. The lagoon and spray field system is used to dispose of pig waste, so swine excrement is sprayed on crops and fields right next to or within communities, infiltrated into local water supplies, and contaminated in the air, which all directly impact the existence of the neighboring communities (Christen 2021). A 2018 study concluded that communities in North Carolina located near hog CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) “had higher all-cause and infant mortality, mortality due to anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia,” and other diseases (NCMJ, 2018, Conclusion).
However, it is not just a shorter life that these communities are suffering from, but also a lower quality of life. Erica Hellerstein in the article, "Life Near Industrial Pig Farms," uncovered everyday people’s hardships living in these communities. One North Carolina resident expresses how the scent is unbearable, smelling like a combination of “death,” “decomposition,” and “spoiled meat” (Hellerstein, 2017). Residents describe a scent that is so repulsive, they can't even venture outside to enjoy cultural past-times such as gardening, barbecuing, or just dancing around a campfire with friends (Hellerstein, 2017). In addition, the communities negatively affected by the hog industry are disproportionately communities of color, exposing deeper systems of oppression at play.
If there are communities that historically have been disempowered through racist institutions and spirals of poverty propped up by these institutions, then they are less capable to resist further injustice and enact policy reforms that could protect them. These companies capitalize on the disadvantages of communities of color and get away with injustices that would be more difficult to establish and perpetuate in white neighborhoods, which are typically better represented and protected by their elected officials. What is happening right now in North Carolina is a clear example of how colonial power legacy and racism continue to thrive in the modern-day. These means of colonialism through material and psychological dispossession are exactly what corporate giants such as Smithfield Foods are imposing upon communities of color in eastern North Carolina when they pollute and destroy resources necessary for those communities to survive.
The numerous consequences of the industrial hog industry have made these communities significantly less livable, leading to fewer jobs opportunities, affluence and sense of space-based belonging. Since these communities find themselves in an even deeper state of poverty with each passing generation, some residents may be able to leave, but others must settle for one of the few jobs left: working at the pig mega-farm.
As one can imagine, working in a large-scale, for-profit pig slaughterhouse is not only disgusting, but incredibly dangerous.
“Pork production workers have one the highest rates of workplace injury of all manufacturing industries in the U.S. and are three times more likely than average workers to experience serious injuries” (Christen, 2021).
These injuries can be caused by common freak accidents in the workplace or due to disease-related issues, as “70 to 90 percent of pig farm dust is biologically active, which means that the air is laden with microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses'', which is shown to promoting a higher risk of respiratory-related diseases such as lung cancer. (Christen 2021)
Pork mega-farms are home to some of the most brutal working conditions in the United States, but because they are occupied by low-income people of color and immigrants, corporations get away with underpaying and overworking their staff. A recent study shows that “Black, Latino, and Asian workers, who represent less than 29 percent of all U.S. workers, make up almost 70 percent of frontline workers in meat processing plants” (Christen 2021). It is also crucial to remember that they are not working with inanimate objects, such as workers in an industrial sweatshop, but are rather working with and taking care of the lives of living beings. Pigs are smarter than most animals, including dogs, and have complex emotions and family dynamics. To see the endless pain and suffering from thousands of pigs every day, just to be able to pay an electric bill, does a level of damage to one’s soul that most people cannot fathom. If the pigs were replaced with humans, the workers would think they were witnessing a genocide.
Even if citizens are not directly affected by the inhumane and unsustainable practices of large-scale pork producers, the long-term effects of mass meat production will indirectly affect all citizens through climate change. Factory farming, which allows pork and other animal products to be produced on a mass scale is one of the leading causes of the modern-day climate crisis, in terms of industrialized meat production is one of the leading emission sources in the world. Animals are fed staple crops such as wheat, corn, and soy, whose growth demands more land, resulting in greater destruction of biodiverse, native species.
Meat production is likely to become more of an issue, as U.S. meat markets are expanding globally. To contextualize this phenomenon, the Green Revolution was the process of western markets expanding their agriculture practices upon developing nations that needed stable food supplies (Daisy, 2021, p. 1). As helpful as this "revolution" may have appeared, technological innovation also gave way for the western meat-based diet and lifestyle to replace traditional regional diets. The mass pork production practices previously described are now becoming more prevalent, as major meat corporations set up shop internationally. The current meat-producing methods have created significant large-scale environmental concerns and will pose larger issues if food regimes continue absorbing power.
The current methods of producing large-scale, cheap pork have led to massive manure pollution, negatively affecting both local ecosystems and communities of color, and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. The problems of the pork industry are multifaceted, but many critiques of the industry only focus on the cruel treatment of animals and the environmental implications of meat production.
Although these are important topics, many activists, commonly people of privilege, forget how these industries play a role in upholding environmental racism. As Wangari Maathai said,
“Cultural revival might be the only thing that stands between the conservation or destruction of the environment” (Maathai 2004).
The justice for oppressed communities of color goes hand in hand with restoration for mother earth, we cannot do one without the other. Pork, in and of itself, is not objectively bad, but it is important to be an informed consumer in every way possible and acknowledge how you, as an individual, may play a role in upholding these corporations. Regardless, consumer choices can only go so far because it is mainly people in privilege who have the affluence and resources to make an ‘ethical’ food purchase. For real sustained change to occur, these large meat-producing corporations’ practices must be put in check through government regulation and be held accountable to follow basic ethical and sustainable guidelines over total profit.
1. Christen, Caroline. "Top Pork Producing States: Who Is the Largest Pork Producer in the U.S.?" Sentient Media, 29 Jan. 2021, sentientmedia.org/top-pork-producing-states/. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.
2. Hellerstein, Erica, and Ken Fine. "A million tons of feces and an unbearable stench: life near industrial pig farms." Guardian, 20 Sept. 2017, www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/20/north-carolina-hog-industry-pig-farms. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.
3. "The Rest of the Story: Corporate Hog Production in NC." North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, 2017, ncejn.org/cafos/#. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.
4. Wing, Steve, and Jill Johnson. "Industrial Hog Operations in North Carolina Disproportionately Impact African-Americans, Hispanics and American Indians." University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Aug. 2014, www.ncpolicywatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/UNC-Report.pdf. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.