The agricultural industry is an intricate and vital fragment of our daily lives. Yet, the same industry that is feeding us every day, is causing obstructive impacts on people directly affected by it and the environment. The meat industry, specifically the pork industry, is one of the largest contributors to environmental degradation such as water quality in certain areas which affects in turn has hurt people near these industrial hog farms. In Barry Estabrook’s’ “Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat” Estabrook looks at the dynamics of the pork industry on his quest to figure out the simple question of whether he should continue to consume bacon.
Estabrook, a pig-raiser himself and an author of other agribusiness-related writings, takes us through the dark side of the pork industry within America and brings to light what we the consumers don’t see. From his findings, we can see that the pork industry is intertwined within many avenues within our lives, but most importantly we can see that to drive down the production costs to have the most profit, the pork industry loves to cut corners.
From the spewing of “pig shit” into people’s backyards and rivers to cramming thousands of pigs into metal crates; the pork industry has been hurting the environment and people’s lives, and the government is letting them get away with it. The pig industry isn’t for the ones who eat the bacon, it’s for the ones who want their share in the pot.
The pig industry and the animals themselves both have something in common, they produced a lot of poop. Estabrook describes the journey of the pig’s waste as it goes from a hog farm to a person’s tap water and fields. The waste first falls directly into a basin underneath the pig, which then gets flushed out with water into pipes that flow into an industrial-sized sprinkler and are sprayed until it saturates the soil as well as gets carried into the air and eventually into nearby people’s lungs. (Estabrook 122). Even worse during times of heavy rain the lagoons that hold the manure, begin to overflow and fall into rivers and water sources (Estabrook 122). To cut costs on production, large industrial hog farms have resorted to using these methods of waste disposal that are crude and unregulated, instead of investing in different ways to dispose of the manure or perhaps not having so many pigs on one farm. Estabrook gives numerous examples of how Smithfield farms (one of the largest pork producers in America) rather spend millions of dollars to settle court cases about nuisances from the horrid smells that people are experiencing and pay the plaintiffs than fix the source of the problem which are the lagoons (Estabrook 138,142). Though the lagoons may be a big problem for the people, the animals themselves face challenges on there-own.
Before the industrial takeover of pig farming, pigs could roam the farm, raise their young by building nests for them, and eat as they pleased. This pleasant picture is now a rarity in pig farming within the 21st century. Inside the large industrial hog complexes called concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), tens of thousands of pigs are crammed less than two feet apart from each other in what is called by the industry “confinements” (Estabrook 85). Their life, in summary, is as follows: the piglets are born and are almost immediately separated from their mother, then if they manage to grow up, they are just on a diet of corn or soybeans and are separated to a different area and when ready to mate they are artificially inseminated, they then give birth within the crates confinements and if they do not meet the (meat) quota of having enough piglets, they can have the chance of becoming the next in line to the slaughterhouse. All of this can happen with the pigs not seeing the sun once in their lives. The pork industry has decided to break the contract between humans and animals by treating pigs as a number rather than an animal. To drive down production costs, the industry is cramming thousands of pigs in a smaller space to manage them all, as well as feeding them a diet of soybeans and corn. Corn, despite its malnutritional value, is one of the main sources of animal feed and is loved by the agricultural industry due to it being inexpensive. Some may argue that these inexpensive costs are just a necessary sacrifice to feed more people. However, Estabrook gives an example of an industrial farmer named Rowels who was able to run a hog farm respectably. Rowels was able to take care of his farm and treat the animals fairly as well as produce a product. Behind all of these industrial practices is the policy that is allowing for them to take place as well as the interest of the shareholders in the companies rather than the consumers.
Despite the crude ways described that the pig industry follows, the policy seems like it is in favor of these practices. Estabrook describes several instances where employees have been asphyxiated due to hydrogen sulfide poisoning from pigs, and states, “despite the scientific evidence, the hog industry has done little to protect its employees, and government regulators have yet to enact rules requiring to do so,” (Estabrook 114-115). He then goes through further instances where government officials who have tried to fix some of the issues have eventually been replaced by opponents who are backed by the pork industry, and how in North Carolina a pig farmer named Murphy received tax breaks to build the CAFOS and get needed equipment, and when found polluting waste into rivers was given “barely a slap on the wrist” (Estabrook 120). The pork industry will be able to have the ability to drive down production costs exponentially using whatever means if the government is not mandating it, but instead protecting the industry because it is profitable. The government is helping to clear the path for the pork industry to trot on, and without much intervention, the pork industry will continue to cut corners for a better profit and the interests of its shareholders.
The benefits that the shareholders reap are a result of the economic system that the pork industry follows. The pork industry follows a system of vertical integration, meaning that every step of their production process is controlled by the same company so instead of outsourcing to a different company to slaughter the pigs or for packaging, all of it is donein-housee. This saves the company much more money as they do not have to pay additional prices for another competitor to do the same job. The pork industry also follows an economic model that is linear, meaning that there is no minimization of waste that is being produced, simply the product is made (the meat) and is delivered to the supermarket and eventually consumed. There is no recycling of goods or services rather the production line goes eventually into the waste bin. As a result of these economic practices, people are being directly affected by the pork industry and so is the environment. Though the industry is trying to reuse the waste they produce as fertilizer forelands, they are doing so in an ineffective way that is degrading the water quality and the lives of residents. Estabrook tells the stories of several North Carolina residents and how increased toxic hydrogen sulfide in the air from pig production has caused residents from stepping outside of their homes asit’ss hard for them to breathe (121). If the industry was to begin to shift into a method of production that is more sustainable and cleaner i.e. not having 20,000 pigs on one plot of land. These environmental and social effects would not be as prevalent, and things like diseases from swine could be reduced as a result of a cleaner environment. Yet, changing these methods is not in profitable favor for the company nor the ones that are invested in it. Until these companies have a change in interest or governmental policy is enforced, it doesn’t seem like thepig’ss lives are going to get any better. Overall, the pork industry that many of us take part inevery dayy is affecting us and others in ways that we couldn’t have imagined.