The Environmental Impact of the Pork Industry: Part 2 in a Series

Mar 23, 2016

Smithfield is the world’s largest producer of pork in the world – a Virginia-based company with farms and packing plants in the U.S., Poland, Romania along with joint ventures in Mexico. Each year the firm raises 16 million animals, and it buys another 14 million from independent farmers to supply the world with bacon, ham and other products made from pigs. 

In part two of our series, Sandy Hausman visits company headquarters in Smithfield, Virginia.

Pigs are big – 500-600 pounds on average, and they’re productive.  Bob Musel is executive director of the Rachel Carson Council, an environmental group that recently produced a report called Pork and Pollution.

“Pigs poop a lot more than humans, and turn out far more waste.”

That waste is stored in massive lagoons – some the size of several football fields. They dot the landscape of southeastern Virginia and North Carolina, Musel says, sometimes polluting water and air.

“Pig poop involves methane – a powerful greenhouse gas, and it is rising in the U.S. and globally.”

At Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest producer of pork, Stewart Leeth admits some lagoons emit methane, but at others the company is beginning to capture it.

“At our farms, whatever fugitive emissions does just go into the atmosphere, but at our plants we collect a lot of bio-gas and actually fuel boilers that generate steam for the plant, and then in Missouri we have a neat project where we cover the lagoons and capture the bio-gas and feed it into the natural gas pipeline or actually fuel trucks.”

And as Smithfield’s Vice President for Sustainability, he feels good about the waste treatment procedures in place.

“The manure goes into lagoons.," Leeth explains. "Then the material there is applied on crops according to permits issued by the state, and it’s actually very scientific.  The folks who manage those farms have data and laptops.  They go out, and they see what crops are on those farms.  They know exactly what’s supposed to be applied, and no more, no less.  They’re not applied during rainstorms, so there’s a lot of science to it actually.”

And he argues the situation is better than it would be if large companies like Smithfield didn’t dominate the market.

“If you think about hundreds of thousands of backyard farms in the old days and what that was probably like for the environment, it’s a much better place that we are today.  I mean it’s managed and controlled under permits.” 

But at the Southern Environmental Law Center, attorney Geoff Gissler says the permitting process isn’t keeping pig waste out of North Carolina’s water.

“The regulatory program doesn’t work.  They do have these permits.  The state does occasionally go out and visit them, but you are probably going to find them doing things like spraying into ditches they’re not supposed to spray into.  You’re going to find runoff going into ditches and waterways.”

“There so much animal waste that the crops just can’t take up that much.”

That’s Travis Graves, the Lower Neuse Riverkeeper. It’s common knowledge, he says, that lagoons leak. 

“You know most of them are fairly old, and almost none of them are lined in any way. So while this waste is sitting in these big open cesspools, as the nitrogen breaks down there’s ammonia that evaporates into the air and you’ve got leaching through the ground.”

In the past, lagoons have also spilled into rivers and wetlands, killing fish, causing algae blooms and dead zones. When Hurricane Floyd hit in 1999, at least five lagoons burst and 47 were flooded.

Graves thinks pig farms should have on-site wastewater treatment plants like what cities use to take care of human waste, and he dismisses industry claims that those systems – which cost $250,000 up – are just too expensive.

“We would like to see companies like the WH Group, which is the Chinese corporation that owns Smithfield now, a company like that could easily afford to take responsibility for this mess.”

He doubts that an industry which spends millions on political campaigns and lobbying will be required to treat its waste, but several environmental groups have filed lawsuits against Smithfield Foods and other pork producers.  Concerns about the industry also come from animal rights advocates.  We’ll hear from them in our next report.