The Legacy of Slavery: What Inequality and Industrial Hog Operations Have in Common

Laura Orlando

The location of North Carolina's industrial hog operations in 2014 overlaid on the density of North Carolina's enslaved people in the 1860s.

Amer­i­can agri­cul­ture is not one sto­ry, but many. Mil­lions of ani­mals liv­ing in con­fined spaces as part of large scale, mar­ket-direct­ed pro­duc­tion — indus­tri­al agribusi­ness — is one of the more hor­rif­ic ones. For peo­ple that live near indus­tri­al hog oper­a­tions, where hun­dreds or thou­sands of hogs are raised in a con­fined space, with open pits of urine and feces and reg­u­lar dis­pos­al these wastes near their homes, it becomes a sto­ry about health and qual­i­ty of life. Steve Wing, an epi­demi­ol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­si­ty of North Car­oli­na at Chapel Hill shows that it’s also about envi­ron­men­tal injustice.

Research by Wing and Jill John­ston, a UNC post­doc­tor­al schol­ar, doc­u­ments that most of the 9.6 mil­lion hogs in North Car­oli­na live in con­cen­trat­ed ani­mal feed­ing oper­a­tions (CAFOs) in the east­ern part of the state where they dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly impact African Amer­i­cans, His­pan­ics and Native Amer­i­cans. Their 2014 study found that the swine CAFOs — also known as indus­tri­al hog oper­a­tions (IHOs) — per­mit­ted by the North Car­oli­na Divi­sion of Water Qual­i­ty are locat­ed in coun­ties with high non-white pop­u­la­tions. Duplin Coun­ty, on the south­east­ern coastal plain, is home to 2.35 mil­lion hogs dis­trib­uted among 530 hog oper­a­tions. In Duplin, 43 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion is non-white. One of the poor­est coun­ties in North Car­oli­na, Duplin has a pover­ty rate of 23.6 per­cent. Wing and John­ston do not focus direct­ly on issues of wealth and pover­ty in their study, but they observe that IHOs are rel­a­tive­ly absent from low-pover­ty White com­mu­ni­ties.” After all, no indus­tri­al hog oper­a­tion is locat­ed next to North Carolina’s Exec­u­tive Mansion.

Over the past two decades, the num­ber of U.S. hog farms declined by more than 70 per­cent while hog pro­duc­tion rose by more than 30 per­cent, accord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture. In 2007, 97 per­cent of hogs were raised in places with over 500 ani­mals. Three-quar­ters of hogs sold for mar­ket are from spe­cial­ized oper­a­tions” with cor­po­rate pro­duc­tion con­tracts that buy 30 to 80 pound pigs from oth­er spe­cial­ized oper­a­tions” and fin­ish them to 240 to 270 pounds, slaugh­ter weight. The peo­ple that man­age these oper­a­tions are not called farm­ers: they are con­tract grow­ers.” Like oth­er U.S. cor­po­rate agribusi­ness­es, indus­tri­al hog oper­a­tions are heav­i­ly sup­port­ed by state and nation­al poli­cies. Larg­er oper­a­tions are more prof­itable than small­er ones because the pigs are treat­ed as com­modi­ties, their feed is mech­a­nized, and the cost of envi­ron­men­tal and pub­lic health dam­age is not con­sid­ered in the bal­ance sheet.

The human and envi­ron­men­tal costs

Water and air pol­lu­tion from the con­fine­ment of thou­sands of swine endan­ger the health of peo­ple liv­ing near­by. Indus­tri­al hog oper­a­tions pol­lute the air with a com­plex mix­ture of par­tic­u­lates (e.g., fecal mat­ter and endo­tox­ins), vapors and gas­es (e.g., ammo­nia and hydro­gen sul­fide) — all of which have neg­a­tive health effects. Add odor from feces, not only a nui­sance but also the cause of health prob­lems, and you get sick peo­ple. Wing and col­leagues have record­ed stress, anx­i­ety, mucous mem­brane irri­ta­tion, res­pi­ra­to­ry con­di­tions, reduced lung func­tion and acute blood pres­sure elevation.

North Carolina’s hog CAFO’s are con­cen­trat­ed in low-lying areas, where the hog-waste cesspools are sus­cep­ti­ble to flood­ing. In addi­tion, the runoff from liq­uid hog waste dumped or sprayed on fields makes its way into state water­ways. Research from Johns Hop­kins and UNC-Chapel Hill has found evi­dence of high con­cen­tra­tions of fecal indi­ca­tor bac­te­ria and the pres­ence of swine-spe­cif­ic fecal MST mark­ers in waters near hog CAFOs — mean­ing there are pig feces in the water.

Indeed, dur­ing the per­mit­ting process in North Car­oli­na, IHOs are per­mit­ted as non-dis­charge facil­i­ties,” which means they are exempt from state rules requir­ing the mon­i­tor­ing of their waste in water­ways. The per­mit, in oth­er words, essen­tial­ly puts a no reg­u­la­tion” stamp on a major source of water pollution.

It’s a pub­lic health cri­sis in these com­mu­ni­ties. Chil­dren do not play out­side. Gar­den­ers stop gar­den­ing. The stink, like noth­ing you have ever smelled before, is over­pow­er­ing. Your body reacts to these real health prob­lems. It’s response? Get me out of here. But when you live next to thou­sands of hogs and no one will buy your house, there’s no place to go.

At a lec­ture at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty in Octo­ber 2014, Wing showed a dra­mat­ic slide that depict­ed a near per­fect over­lay of the loca­tion of indus­tri­al hog farms to the den­si­ty of slave pop­u­la­tions in the 1860s. The con­cen­tra­tion of mil­lions of pigs in south­east­ern North Car­oli­na is made pos­si­ble by racial injus­tices that deny peo­ple basic rights. Wing writes, If work­ers and res­i­dents in rur­al com­mu­ni­ties that are most direct­ly impact­ed had basic polit­i­cal and human rights, indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture would not have devel­oped with such destruc­tive force because those affect­ed by its side effects would have been able to pro­tect themselves.”

Indus­tri­al ani­mal waste cesspools

It’s hard to know what to do when there’s a hos­tile cor­po­rate neigh­bor with thou­sands of hogs liv­ing next door. Local, state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ments are no help. But a num­ber of orga­ni­za­tions — North Car­oli­na Envi­ron­men­tal Jus­tice Net­work, Earth­jus­tice, Con­cerned Cit­i­zens of Tillery, Rur­al Empow­er­ment Asso­ci­a­tion for Com­mu­ni­ty Help, and Water­keep­er Alliance — are fight­ing the good fight.

The Con­cerned Cit­i­zens of Tillery (CCT), an envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice orga­ni­za­tion estab­lished in 1978 and locat­ed in Tillery, a com­mu­ni­ty in east­ern NC has been orga­niz­ing the oppo­si­tion to IHOs for decades. The expe­ri­ence of the home­stead farm isn’t as com­mon as it used to be, where a few pigs are part of the farm ecosys­tem and hun­dreds (or thou­sands!) would be known to wreck it. Like an inva­sive weed, it takes patience and effort to con­vince peo­ple the weed wasn’t always there.

When CCT is asked why hogs and dan­ger­ous pol­lu­tants come into poor, rur­al com­mu­ni­ties, the group responds, Because there are Blacks and Lati­nos and Native Amer­i­cans liv­ing in these com­mu­ni­ties.” The organization’s web­site puts it this way: We have become a soci­ety based on con­sump­tion and mate­ri­al­ism, the inevitable envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion begins in the back­yards’ of African Amer­i­cans, oth­er peo­ple of col­or and yes, poor whites who could not flight’ to urban America.”

I met Gary Grant, the long-time exec­u­tive direc­tor of CCT, sev­er­al years ago. By the time I met him, I’d been inside build­ings with thou­sands of hogs. I’d walked around the cesspools the indus­try likes to call lagoons.” It’s hard not to see the hor­ror of the ani­mals’ lives and the ruina­tion on the lives of the peo­ple liv­ing nearby.

Steve Wing and his col­leagues illus­trate how North Car­oli­na indus­tri­al hog oper­a­tions degrade the envi­ron­ment and health of peo­ple liv­ing near them. They have doc­u­ment­ed that the facil­i­ties built to house hun­dreds or thou­sands of hogs and the result­ing cesspools and waste dis­pos­al fields are most­ly locat­ed near the homes of peo­ple of col­or. Gary Grant knows this. It’s about time a whole lot of oth­er peo­ple learned about it. Wing reminds us that mak­ing sus­tain­abil­i­ty and decen­cy an inte­gral part of the food sys­tem can improve life for every­body. Now that’s a sto­ry to be part of.

Lau­ra Orlan­do is a mem­ber of the Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times Board of Edi­tors. She is a civ­il engi­neer and teach­es in the envi­ron­men­tal health depart­ment at the Boston Uni­ver­si­ty School of Pub­lic Health. Lau­ra grew up on a farm near Ben­ton Har­bor, Michi­gan. She is a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan and the Har­vard Kennedy School of Government.
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