This post is part of our symposium on the Law and Political Economy of Meat.
In North Carolina, environmental justice communities have been fighting the rise of industrial animal agriculture for thirty years, and they are used to losing. They lose in the courts, in the permitting and enforcement offices of state bureaucrats and, above all, in the Capitol. Even so, these community advocates used to joke that it could be worse; we could be fighting Duke Energy. Everyone took for granted that however powerful the swine empire, the undisputed king of corporatocracy remained the state-sanctioned electricity monopolies.
No one is laughing today. A perfect storm of opportunistic greenwashing, climate change profiteering, and regulatory truancy have yoked Big Pig and Big Energy in a lockstep effort to invent a new, dirty energy sector. It’s an unholy alliance that promises further concentration of the modern Meat Trust and re-entrenchment of carbon-intensive energy. What is happening today in North Carolina—where many believe the EJ movement began—foreshadows a troubling realignment of the forces of oligarchy against human and non-human animal flourishing.
The Big Pig Problem
As Viveca Morris recounted in an earlier post, animal agriculture rapidly industrialized from the 1970s through 1990s. As recently as 1982, North Carolina was home to more than 11,000 small swine farms spread across each of its 100 counties. The state became ground zero for the explosion of swine CAFOs as Murphy-Brown, Smithfield, and others adapted the industrial model pioneered by Tyson Foods for broiler chickens to the rearing and slaughter of hogs. Between 1989 and 1995, 7,000 small hog farmers were displaced by 700 Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). In its Pulitzer-Prize-winning series on the rise of Big Pig, the Raleigh News and Observer described the resulting landscape as a “megalopolis” of barns that today confine around 9 million pigs. The CAFOs radiated out from the small town of Tar Heel, where Smithfield built the world’s largest hog slaughterhouse to kill and process 35,000 pigs every day.
Those pigs produce twice as much manure as the population of New York City, but there are no hog sewage treatment plants. Instead, North Carolina’s 2,300 swine CAFOs use the “lagoon and spray field system” where waste is flushed from confinement barns into uncovered and (mostly) unlined earthen pits. There, feces and urine partially digest before huge sprinklers spray the excreta onto surrounding fields. This lagoon and spray field system lies at the root of Big Pig’s environmental harms, including water pollution, air pollution, antibiotic resistance, and nuisance conditions.
The new mega-facilities are so concentrated that just 10 North Carolina counties now account for 10% of the entire swine inventory of the United States. Duke University researchers found that neighbors of these farms suffered higher rates of all-cause mortality, infant mortality, mortality from anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, and low birth weight.
Beyond the deleterious health effects, this pollution makes neighboring homes nearly unlivable. In 2014, over 500 mostly-BIPOC neighbors sued Smithfield’s hog production subsidiary, Murphy-Brown, alleging the company not only caused the nuisance conditions, but that the company knew about the harm, had the technology and resources to fix it, and negligently failed to take corrective measures. Five separate juries agreed and returned punitive damages awards totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.
While no one should have to endure such conditions, it’s hardly a surprise that some communities bear them disproportionately. The beloved University of North Carolina epidemiologist Steve Wing analyzed the siting of CAFOs in Eastern North Carolina and found “a case study of environmental racism.” Compared to the non-Hispanic white population, Black people and Native Americans are respectively 1.4 and 2.39 times more likely to live within three miles of a swine CAFO. So stark is the disparity that Harvie Wilkinson III, a Fourth Circuit judge hearing Smithfield’s appeal of the nuisance suits, recently opined that courts should take judicial notice of that fact “that environmental harms are visited disproportionately upon the dispossessed…on minority populations and poor communities.”
Nuisance suits may yet force Smithfield to deal with its pollution, but frontline communities aren’t holding their breath. They’ve heard it all before. After a series of catastrophic lagoon breaches in the mid-1990s, a popular uprising led by community organizations forced the NC legislature to put a moratorium on new waste lagoons. In 2000, Smithfield entered into an agreement with the NC Attorney General in which it promised to develop and install “environmentally superior technology” on the farms grandfathered in under the moratorium. This technology was supposed to “substantially eliminate” all toxic discharges and emissions. 20 years later, Smithfield has not installed the promised technology on its farms, though it has been available since at least 2006.
It is against this backdrop of inaction that, in 2018, Smithfield announced plans to spend $250 million to capture methane from its lagoons and purify it into natural gas in collaboration with Dominion Energy. They recently doubled that commitment to $500 million in a bid to become “the largest renewable [sic] gas supplier in the U.S.”
After two decades breaking its basic environmental promises, why did the world’s largest pork producer to suddenly find religion on climate change?
Lipstick on a Pig
One of the great dangers of our national climate policy vacuum is that the fox will happily take charge of the henhouse. To preempt the case for regulation, private parties will step in to demonstrate that the market can do a fine job, thank you very much. They craft seductive “solutions” to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, while pressing issues of justice—not least environmental justice and justice for non-human animals—receive little more than lip service in the company’s annual report. Whatever the glossy brochure says, if the choices are distributive justice, a livable climate, and obscene corporate profits, it’s a “pick two” at best.
Enter the world’s largest retailer, and its effort to green its corporate image. In 2017, Walmart announced plans to eliminate one billion metric tons of greenhouse gasses by 2030 by squeezing them out of its supply chain. Walmart began conditioning purchase orders on a proprietary “Sustainability Index.” When the nation’s largest grocery store started suggesting that its suppliers might want to clean up their greenhouse gas emissions, Smithfield was suddenly on the wrong side of the monopsony power it usually holds dear. The company began looking for ways to keep Walmart happy, and it did not take long to concoct a scheme whereby it would turn its greatest liability—the nuisance-causing manure—into a sparkling profit center. At the same time, energy companies were searching for renewable and low-carbon feedstock to satisfy regulators and meet growing demand for carbon offset credits in the private sector. These efforts to “green” both the food and energy supply chains gave birth to the joint Smithfield/Dominion Energy project, which hopes to produce pipeline-grade natural gas from the hog waste lagoons. They call the new product biogas.
A waste lagoon the size of several football fields emits a lot of methane. Because of loopholes that industry pried opened in federal air pollution laws, animal operations can dump unlimited methane into the atmosphere. Smithfield and Dominion formed a company called Align RNG, which plans to place gigantic tarps over Smithfield’s lagoons, capture the methane, and pipe it to a centralized facility for purification and injection into natural gas pipelines. If either the EPA or the states regulated methane emissions from CAFOs, methane captured for electricity production could neither be credited toward Walmart’s reduction targets nor used to generate carbon offset credits, which require mitigation beyond baseline levels (commonly called the “additionality” requirement).
The problem isn’t biogas, per se. If we are going to have swine CAFOs, they damn well better capture and destroy methane. But current biogas projects don’t make any progress on the EJ concerns that communities have been raising for thirty years. In fact, covering the lagoons will likely exacerbate the nuisances and the pollution of rivers and groundwater. The Coastal Plain is characterized by sandy soils and high water tables, and no one knows how much waste will seep and leach into groundwater once lagoons are pressurized. We do know that trapping gasses under a lagoon cover increases the concentrations of inorganic nitrogen up to 350%. And Biogas distribution will impose additional burdens on communities of color by increasing truck traffic and subjecting residents to many miles of new pipelines to transport unrefined gas from the farm to processing facilities.
In our vision of a better world, we don’t need CAFOs. We need air that doesn’t cause asthma and water that doesn’t kill fish and a stable climate for our kids. We need to stop destroying Black and Brown bodies, from the slaughterhouse floor to the ancestral home that abuts a lagoon and spray field.
When the nuisance suits went up to the Fourth Circuit, amicus briefs supporting the neighbors flooded in from diverse sectors, including the Humane Society, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, and Waterkeeper Alliance. Weaving these ideological threads together, Judge Wilkinson wrote:
What was missing from [Smithfield] was the recognition that treating animals better will benefit humans. What was neglected is that animal welfare and human welfare, far from advancing at cross- purposes, are actually integrally connected…The dangers endemic to such appalling conditions always manifested first in animal suffering. Ineluctably, however, the ripples of dysfunction would reach farm workers and, at last, members of the surrounding community.
If a white, 76-year-old Reagan-appointed federal judge can grasp the imperatives of this moment, there is hope for the cross-movement alliances that can bring environmental justice, climate justice, and justice for non-human animals.