Some of this text is graphic and may be disturbing.
Visit to North Carolina CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations)
Last Thursday, we visited Duplin County, NC to learn about Industrial Farm Animal Production (IFAP) (thanks to volunteer pilots Bob Epting, lawyer and former member of the NC Environmental Management Commission, and Dennis Howard). The group also included Steve Wing (associate professor, Epidemiology), Jim Merchant, (former dean College of Iowa School of Public Health and environmental scientist) Brenda Motsinger, director of special projects, SPH. We also were joined by Rick Dove, lawyer and Riverkeeper (Neuseriver.org) through the Waterkeeper Alliance (WKA). I came away sad, angry and shocked by what we saw and motivated to act.
“Over the last 50 years, the method of producing food animals in the United States has changed from the extensive system of small and medium-sized farms owned by a single family to a system of large, intensive operations where the animals are housed in large numbers in enclosed structures that resemble industrial buildings more than they do a traditional barn. That change has happened primarily out of view of consumers but has come at a cost to the environment and a negative impact on public health, rural communities, and the health and well-being of the animals themselves.”
Flying over Duplin County
We flew over Duplin County. As far as the eye could see, there were hog lagoons and low slung buildings that house thousands of hogs and chickens. From the air, we could see how hog waste is sprayed onto fields, how the effluent runs into ditches that run into creeks that lead to rivers, including the Neuse, and pollutes all it touches. We saw how close the spray would come to neighboring houses and could imagine how the wind would blow that disgusting liquid onto yards and even into houses. It felt like we had traveled back in time to the 19th or early 20th century, before modern means of waste disposal were used. Think of CAFOs as factories, like what Upton Sinclair wrote about in The Jungle. These aren’t the bucolic farms of yesterday. Animals are raised strictly as products, crammed together in inhumane conditions, raised only to be slaughtered. There’s nothing noble about CAFOs. The Farm-Aid website has some fabulous aerial photos of Duplin County CAFOs and hog lagoons.
Ten million hogs in North Carolina are raised “industrial style.” Most all of these hogs are located in the environmentally sensitive area of North Carolina’s Coastal Plain (area East of I-95). Each and every day, those 10 million hogs produce “fecal waste” equivalent to what is produced by all the citizens in the following states combined: North Carolina, California, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, New Hampshire and North Dakota (100 million people). This ten to one ratio is verified by the research of Dr. Mark Sobsey (UNC, Chapel Hill). (From the Neuseriver.org website)
After we landed, we were met by Devon Hall, co-founder of REACH (Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help), a community support organization in Warsaw, North Carolina. Devon drove us around the county, pointing out the proximity of CAFOs to homes, showing us polluted wetlands, taking us to the home of a woman who lives across from a CAFO and whose well is now contaminated. We stopped along the way to take pictures of the contents of a “dead box.” A dead box is one of many dumping grounds for carcasses of dead animals. Earlier that day, I’d never even heard of a dead box, and now it is forever etched into my memory.
Meeting with community members
We were hosted by Devon Hall and community members to a generous lunch of fresh country foods (The banana pudding looked fabulous.) and watched a presentation by Riverkeepers Rick Dove and Larry Baldwin. Then, we heard from community members, all of them Black. They told us how they’d been harmed by the hog and poultry industries–how they’d lost their homes, farms, jobs and/or health, how their dogs who drank the contaminated run-off water from CAFOs had died, how they’d been intimidated but still had not given up or given in. They talked of not being able to go outside, because of the smell and not being able to hang clothes to dry on the line outside, because when the spray came on, the effluent would contaminate their sheets. They did not speak of themselves as heroes. They are heroes.
Anti-CAFO, not anti-farm
No one with whom I spoke is against farms (some of them are or had been farmers) or against eating meat. (In fact, I appeared to be the only vegetarian in the midst.) They objected to CAFOs, because they depend on inhumane treatment of animals and threaten the environment, the public’s health and the integrity of rural communities. Industrial farming even exploits farmers who used to own the land and everything on it but leveraged their futures to multi-national corporations that have made them indentured servants in many cases.
I am very concerned about CAFOs. Animal waste carries pathogens. Hogs produce a lot of waste. Because animals are raised in extremely tight quarters in ways that compromise their health and development, pathogens spread faster. (Hogs may be implicated in the current H1N1 epidemic, but the data are not yet complete.) Animal waste is sprayed on fields as fertilizer and contaminates air, fields, water and whatever is in its path. People living in communities around these operations are sickened by their exposures. Their children get more asthma. This is a public health problem. It is also a social justice problem, because CAFOs are most often located in communities that are poor, cannot complain and often can’t leave. One of the men who spoke offered this caution with regard to ill health, environmental degradation and other consequences of CAFOs: “It may be in my neighborhood today, but it might be in yours tomorrow.”
What we do matters. On the flight back, Bob Epting said to Jim Merchant and me: the numbers matter, and the science matters. He reminded us that our research provides critical pieces of the evidence about the relationship between IFAP and the environment and human health. Unbiased, well-designed research results contribute to policy making and could help in reaching the tipping point about a problem too few people care about. The RIVERKEEPTERS(TM) cited Mark Sobsey’s (PhD, Kenan Professor of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (ESE)) research about fecal contamination in water. Everyone talked about the importance of Steve Wing’s research that addresses the connection between exposures to hog wastes and human health–a critical connection. Mike Aitken (chair, ESE) is leading a new project to remove nitrogen and recover energy from hog waste. A study by David Richardson (associate professor Epidemiology) may help to sort out the relationship between exposure and asthma episodes and managing disease and linking data. Alice Ammerman and Marci Campbell (professors of Nutrition) and colleagues have been working in Duplin County for many years through the Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Center at UNC.
I don’t yet know how our School can be most helpful, but I am going to figure it out–with a lot of input.
Postscript – a message from Bob Epting
Bob Epting wrote us after the visit. His words are eloquent.
I am always struck, coming home from Duplin County, with the idea that we fly over it and see how it encompasses everything, and is inescapable, but then, we can come home.
The human beings who fed us last Thursday cannot simply fly away from the stench, or from the hog mess running off into the streams and seeping into the wells, fouling the air and water vital to their existence. They cannot anymore fly away from it than they can sell their polluted homes and move away. Nor should they have to. The political and financial powers that control their physical circumstances, and despoil their peace and happiness, fully control their options.
And yet they gather, and bring in friends, and others interested in their plight, and they make manifest, as they did for us, their faith and their courage.
I am encouraged…by the determination of the human spirit reflected in that meeting hall, by their strength and dignity.
I believe that we are put here, in this moment, to see whether we have the will, and reciprocal courage, to hear them, to recognize their suffering as ours to share, and to repeat their stories over and over again, speaking truth to the powers within the circles we are able to share…Truly, what we have seen should leave no doubt that we are a part of, not apart from, the natural universe, and that our highest duty ought to be to protect and engender an appreciation of our place and interdependence within the ecosystem.
At least this is how I have come to understand Public Health.
That’s an excellent way to describe public health!
For more information:
- Environmental Injustice in North Carolina’s Hog Industry by Steve Wing, Dana Cole and Gary Grant
- Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production In America: A Report of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production