Smithfield Foods was recently sued by dozens of North Carolinians who live near its factory hog farms, and it has lost all three of the suits that have gone to trial so far. Juries awarded plaintiffs nearly $550 million in total after hearing testimony about terrible odors, adverse health impacts and shocking property destruction.
And then Hurricane Florence hit eastern North Carolina. The storm’s rains caused dozens of hog waste lagoons (on many Smithfield factory farms built within floodplains) to overflow, or breach entirely, resulting in the release of millions of gallons of untreated hog manure into floodwaters-- and, as we we wrote earlier, into communities and people’s homes. In short, the public is becoming increasingly aware of Smithfield’s questionable business practices.
So what does any corporation do when it finds itself in such a conundrum? Throw the spin machine into high-gear and resort to some good old-fashioned greenwashing, of course. Last week, Smithfield announced that it will partner with the Environmental Defense Fund to build “manure-to-energy” systems on 90 percent of its hog factory farms in North Carolina, Utah and Missouri in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (If you read their release, make sure not to miss the part where the company goes for bonus greenwashing points with plans to plant ‘butterfly-friendly plants’ on its factory hog farms in Missouri.)
None of this is anything more than lipstick on a pig
Factory farms confine thousands of animals into crowded spaces. These animals produce vast amounts of manure. In the case of factory hog farms, this waste is often held in open-air lagoons until it is sprayed on fields, often at rates that exceed the soil’s ability to absorb it.
The problems with this “lagoon and sprayfield” system that Smithfield uses in North Carolina are numerous. Excess manure runs off into rivers and streams where it pollutes drinking water supplies, causes toxic algae blooms and harms aquatic life. Spraying manure on fields adjacent to homes and communities has caused significant health impacts and a steep decline in property values and quality of life. Storing this waste in open-air lagoons releases huge amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, directly into the atmosphere.
The “bio” in “biogas” only sounds natural
Smithfield has proposed covering existing lagoons and constructing complicated and expensive machines called digesters to capture this methane, or “biogas.” The gas then has to be processed and injected into pipelines to be burned for electricity or to meet other natural gas demands.
Digesters simply don’t work
Digesters experience an extremely high rate of failure. Earlier this year, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s database of livestock waste digesters showed that 17 of 27 digesters built in California had been shuttered. They also don’t magically make manure-- or the nutrients in it-- disappear. In fact, if digesters add water to manure during the digestion process, the total volume of waste may actually increase. The leftover waste will still be sprayed or spread on land, and studies have shown that the digestion process could make nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus-- the cause of so many water quality problems near factory farms-- in the leftover solids more water soluble, meaning that rainwater is more likely to wash those nutrients from fields into nearby streams. Smithfield claims these lagoon covers and digesters will help to reduce odor caused by its factory farms, but even the North Carolina Pork Council has written that covers do nothing to reduce odors.
Manure-to-energy also requires a massive infrastructure build-out in order to move the gas to market-- each digester will require a pipeline. These pipelines will criss-cross rural areas and communities. They’ll require construction of new rights-of-way that will fragment farms and forests and that could pollute rivers and streams. It’s possible the land could be taken by eminent domain. It’s possible this huge investment in infrastructure could be subsidized with taxpayer dollars.
Finally, propping up factory farms across the country with manure-to-energy technology does nothing to mitigate the other harms this industry causes. Regardless of how factory farms manage their manure, they still put the safety of our food at risk, destroy family farms and the economies of rural communities, harm the welfare of animals, and drive antibiotic resistance. They still create unsafe and unhealthy conditions for workers. And they still disproportionately affect low-income areas and communities of color.
Monetizing hog sh*t
Creating a market for the waste generated by factory farms further entrenches the factory farm model-- as evidenced by Smithfield’s plan to build dozens of new factory farms equipped with digesters in Utah.
We’ll say it again: Smithfield proposes building new factory farms in Utah in its announcement about meeting its climate goals.
Investing in the massive infrastructure needed to execute this plan wastes resources that could be spent on real renewable energy like wind and solar -- and on transitioning to a more sustainable way of raising livestock that eliminates the need for massive manure lagoons and avoids this methane problem in the first place. This scheme doesn’t benefit people in Utah, North Carolina, Missouri or anywhere else-- it just makes money for Smithfield Foods and other corporate polluters.
So what is the real solution?
Massive and polluting factory farms are not part of a clean energy system. Building new factory farms so that we can produce energy from the waste they generate moves us away from truly clean energy and a better method of raising animals for food. It does not meaningfully address climate change. It simply allows Smithfield Foods to greenwash their image.
It’s time to change the fundamental structure of our food system. Join us as we fight for a ban on factory farms.