This Little Piggy
Think pigs live fairy-tale lives? Hogwash.
By Debra Bokur
Beneath the roof of a huge metal shed, thousands of pigs are crushed together, unable to turn around, unable to socialize, kept hostage from sunlight and fresh air. From the time they're weaned until the day they're slaughtered, they stand on concrete or metal grates, which their feces and urine will be washed through before being dumped outside into a manure lagoon already the size of a small lake. To help keep disease at bay and hurry along the maturation process, these pigs are regularly fed grains laced with growth hormones and antibiotics.
To date, industrial hog farms like the one described above are operating at full speed in 34 states. The health and environmental consequences of these animal factory operations, including toxic waste spills from manure lagoons into water supplies, have become commonplace.
In The Drink
According to Sierra Club statistics, an estimated 2.7 trillion pounds of animal waste are produced each year in the United States by factory farms, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in turn admits that this waste has polluted at least 35,000 miles of domestic rivers and has been responsible for groundwater contamination in at least 17 states.
The agency continues to crack down on polluters. In June 2001, the EPA ordered five swine farms in Oklahoma to provide safe drinking water to area families and to identify the extent of their existing contamination. In 1998, 25 million gallons of waste from a North Carolina hog farm washed into the New River, killing an estimated 10 million fish and closing 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands to shellfishing. In North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Missouri and Indiana, elevated nitrate levels have tested above safe limits in a significant percentage of drinking water wells located in the vicinity of hog farms.
This pollution most often occurs as holding tanks or manure lagoons burst, leak or overflow, allowing raw manure to enter water supplies via streams and rivers, or by soaking through porous ground into water tables.
The health risks for humans from this waste include drinking-water supplies contaminated with bacteria and viruses, toxic pathogens such as fecal coliform and Pfiesteria piscicida and phosphorus, nitrogen and heavy metals including zinc and copper. Such pollutants have been found to cause gastrointestinal illnesses, cognitive impairments, skin irritations, spontaneous abortions and blue baby syndrome—a frequently fatal condition in infants whereby red blood cells are damaged to a degree that prevents them from carrying adequate levels of oxygen. In 1995, the county health department in LaGrange County, Ind., connected six miscarriages to the elevated levels of nitrates in their drinking-water wells; all of the women lived adjacent to factory hog farms.
In addition, this waste includes high levels of the antibiotics and hormones routinely used in large-scale hog production. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, more than 40 percent of the antibiotics sold domestically are used in agriculture. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recognized that human health consequences from antibiotics in the food supply are very real and contribute directly to antibiotic resistance in the human population. Antibiotic use in animals is currently being targeted in an effort to curb the spread of this resistance.
Fighting Half Hog
Lack of accountability lies at the root of much of the current problem. Although the task of issuing permits and policing the actions of animal factory farms lies with the EPA, lack of funds and manpower have allowed pollution to continue largely unchecked. Antiquated policies, including only voluntary compliance or a complete lack of a permitting system altogether, also contribute to the problem.
The Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in New York, has begun lawsuits that directly target the hog industry. "These producers are violating the law. You can't fill a permeable hole in the ground with waste without there being pollution," says Kevin Madonna, litigation coordinator for the alliance. "The EPA doesn't have the funds or resources to enforce their mandates. And now Bush is proposing to cut the budget even more, which will put an even larger stranglehold on enforcement efforts. We are filling the enforcement void at both state and national levels," he says.
Solutions And Stewardship
Safe, healthy and responsible alternatives to industrial pork do exist. Several companies have implemented hog-farming practices that include feeds completely free of hormones and antibiotics, and animal-living facilities that allow ample room for roaming (see "Who's Responsible?"). Instead of being packed together on concrete and metal, these animals live on small family farms and are raised on hardwood sawdust, which may later be safely composted. These practices allow livestock to function in a natural manner, including the nesting of pregnant sows and the birthing and suckling of their young. Instead of thousands of animals living virtually on top of one another, small farms provide ample space per animal for roaming and socializing.
"Pigs are very social animals," says Mario Maillet, assistant general manager of duBreton Natural Pork. "We make sure that from birth to market, they have access to one another, sunlight, and high-quality pure feeds." DuBreton products also carry the Free Farmed label (see "Who's Responsible?"), a voluntary, third-party certification which guarantees responsible, humane livestock practices.
Never underestimate the power of your purchasing dollar, adds Kevin Madonna.
Consumer choices influence the marketplace in a big way. Buy responsibly produced, hormone-free and antibiotic-free pork products, and speak out against the practices of industrial hog farming by writing to your state legislators. Insist that farms raising hogs in your community or state meet the restrictions set by the EPA for waste management and disposal. Demand water testing in areas where waste runoff or water contamination are a possibility. And last, but by no means least, contribute to the ethical and humane treatment of farm food animals by buying only from small family farms or producers who can guarantee that their animals have been raised responsibly.
Debra Bokur is a travel, health and fitness writer and contributing author to Spreading The Word: Editors on Poetry (The Bench Press, 2001).