Photo by Anastasiia Kamil on Unsplash.

North Carolina’s hog industry could turn a corner—for better or worse

This year may mark a dramatic turning point for communities around industrial hog farms in North Carolina. Landmark victories and emerging trends have put hog farming concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) at a crossroads. The future direction depends largely on North Carolina’s legislature—which begins its session in April—making decisions to protect people’s health and the environment over interests of Smithfield, Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, who are pushing biogas from hog CAFOs to offset their carbon dioxide pollution. 

For nearly 40 years, federal, state, and local government agencies transformed North Carolina’s pork industry through farm bill policy, legal loopholes, and tax breaks. From the 1940s to the 1970s, tens of thousands of geographically-dispersed North Carolina farmers raised a small number of animals on each farm. Federal agricultural policy drastically changed under President Nixon’s USDA Secretary Earl Butz, who urged farmers to “get big or get out.” State legislators with ties to the industry promoted hog CAFOs through law and policy during the 1980s. As a result, fewer farmers raise more hogs on less land in the state than ever before. As of 2017, North Carolina had almost nine million hogs on about 2,400 farms.

Agricultural engineers designed hog waste management systems primarily to protect hogs, not neighboring residential communities. Barns occupy high ground, with high-velocity venting fans pointed out towards neighboring properties that blow out gasses from hog waste. Adjacent to the barns, and often in the path of barn vents, are large waste pits called “lagoons,” where hog wastewater brews, teaming with microbes. Irrigation systems spray huge volumes of this pathogen-laden wastewater into the air and onto the soil. Neighbors breathe in these fumes, aerosols, and gasses.

Lagoon and sprayfield systems create environmental health concerns. The late epidemiologist and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill professor Dr. Steve Wing investigated the impacts of hog farms on neighboring communities for decades, showing a disproportionate negative impact on Black, Latino and Native American residents.Wing’s research showed adverse health impacts expressed in a wide array of respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms. 

As of 2017, North Carolina had almost nine million hogs on about 2,400 farms.

Wheezing, asthma and other respiratory symptoms were associated with proximity to hog CAFOs. In 2018, the North Carolina Medical Journal published an issue devoted to environmental health issues in North Carolina. Residents near hog CAFOs were more likely to be African-American and Native American, had lower median household income, and had higher death rates of all studied diseases. Infant mortality, anemia, kidney disease, septicemia, and tuberculosis were each higher in North Carolina communities with hog CAFOs.  Nonprofits such as the Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH) and the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network have been organizing community members to document and resist these harms. But for decades, the industry has successfully resisted community members’ demands for change.

That is beginning to shift. Beginning in August 2014, 25 cases were filed on behalf of 515 plaintiffs against Murphy-Brown, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the country. Cases sought damage awards for the nuisance created when residents were not able to enjoy the use of their homes due to odors, flies and waste spraying. Plaintiffs also argued that Murphy-Brown’s egregiously wrongful actions merited punitive damages. The first trial began in April 2018, followed by four more trials connected to four hog CAFOs operated by local farmers contracted by Murphy-Brown, and one hog CAFO owned and operated by Murphy-Brown itself. Between April 2018 and January 2019, plaintiffs won all five of these trials. The outcomes were decisive: multi-million dollar verdicts from five separate juries, including huge punitive damages against Murphy-Brown for the extreme harms inflicted against the plaintiffs’ property rights. 

These cases represent a sea change in the fight for communities afflicted by hog CAFO pollution, but the win is still not clean-cut. A judge drastically reduced the punitive damages because of a state-imposed limit. The jury awards are being challenged by Smithfield Foods to the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which heard arguments in January.

Barns occupy high ground, with high-velocity venting fans pointed out towards neighboring properties that blow out gasses from hog waste.

The trials weren’t the only recent sign of hope. On May 3, 2018, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) reached an unprecedented settlement with the federal government in response to complaints brought under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits recipients of federal funding (like NCDEQ) from implementing policies and practices that have discriminatory impacts based on race, color, or national origin. These complaints detailed how the state had ignored the impacts of hog CAFOs on communities of color for decades. The state settled, and NCDEQ agreed to take steps to engage neighbors in CAFO-permitting decisions and create an online mapping tool to evaluate environmental justice impacts of its decisions.

The civil rights settlement and five jury verdicts signify that some relief is on the way for communities. Both the lawsuits and the civil rights complaint followed decades of delays in correcting the problems created by North Carolina’s hog CAFO building boom. These delays result from the great political and economic influence wielded by the slaughterhouse giants. Political forces that promote hog CAFOs remain strong with support from Smithfield Food’s political action committee, Hampac. North Carolina General Assembly members voted to restrict future lawsuits against the agricultural industry including CAFOs.

Infant mortality, anemia, kidney disease, septicemia and tuberculosis were each higher in North Carolina communities with hog CAFOs.

North Carolina’s hog farmers are at a crossroads. There are two ways forward. One group of farmers is continuing to grow more and more hogs in CAFOs. Another group of farmers is shunning the CAFO system and raising pork on pasture. Pastured hog farmers are blending modern science with older animal husbandry traditions to provide pork that has fewer negative environmental and health effects, regenerative hog farming which replenishes the soil and protects water quality.

Meanwhile, CAFOs are trending towards becoming biogas factories, where methane stripped from hog waste is sold. Biogas capture has greenhouse gas reduction benefits, but it does not protect neighbors. It must be coupled with modern pollution controls to address water quality, pathogens, odor impacts, and air pollution. Additionally, demand for biogas creates incentives for more CAFOs to produce more waste. Next we can expect these promoters to ask to lift the moratorium on new swine CAFOs altogether. Hog biogas promoters are once again ignoring neighbors and wielding economic power to prevent better permits and enhanced regulations to protect communities.

Pastured hog farming has a bright future. Many consumers want to avoid eating injustice. North Carolina’s hog farming policies should incentivize farmers to use pasture-based systems and regenerative agriculture practices. We also must require pollution controls and closely monitor hog CAFOs that become biogas factories. North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper vetoed last summer’s state budget, which planned to give nearly one million dollars to encourage biogas related to hog CAFOs without any additional requirements to monitor pollution, much less control it. 

In this coming North Carolina legislative session, biogas promoters will likely be back looking for more state support. We need to closely monitor the politicians as well as the polluters who support them. Last year’s NC Farm Bill would have created a loophole to the moratorium for swine biogas projects, without adding any environmental protections. It died due to conflicts between the NC House and Senate over hemp policy. Those swine biogas provisions will be back and policymakers must not allow swine biogas loopholes, but strengthen environmental protections on any swine farms. Extending grandfathering loopholes to brand new biogas factories using 30 year old lagoon and sprayfield systems makes no sense as policy. It entrenches environmental injustice for another generation of folks living near these swine farms. We owe it to the neighbors to stop injustice.

  • About

    Ryke Longest teaches environmental and water resources law as a Clinical Professor at Duke School of Law and the Nicholas School of the Environment.