What are the Environmental Costs of Pork?


Producing more than enough poop to fill over 15,000 Olympic-size swimming pools every year, hog facilities and other animal operations in North Carolina are placing an atrocious strain on the environment. A recent report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Waterkeeper Alliance (Waterkeepers) outlines the high environmental costs of producing nearly 10 billion gallons of toxic fecal waste a year–in one state alone! Granted, we’re talking about the nation’s Powerhouse Pork Farmin’ State, but no matter how you slop it, 10 billion gallons of poop a year is, to say the least, eye-popping.

The new report, Exposing Fields of Filth, charts the growth of North Carolina’s swine population for the past 20 years. Doubling from just over five million in 1992, it now approaches nearly 10 million pigs as of 2012.

Finally Exposing US Hog Operations

To be completely accurate, chickens are contributing their fair share of poop to this pile, too. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2012 census, North Carolina’s broiler chicken population swelled from an earlier 60 million to 148 million birds. However, it’s the pigs that are seriously hogging the attention of environmental scientists. As a major contributor to a huge environmental and health disaster, hog operations are finally being more widely exposed.

As the second largest hog farming industry in the US, North Carolina’s hog and pig sales are accounting for over $3 billion dollars a year. It’s high time we all become more aware of the high environmental costs of bringin’ home the bacon.

Judging the high environmental costs of bringin' home the bacon. Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Judging the high environmental costs of bringin’ home the bacon. Credit: Wikipedia Commons

The Well-Known Spiritual Costs of Pork

There are some among us with a religious waiver absolving us of any cultural responsibility for pork’s environmental crimes on humanity. Most observant Hindus and many Buddhists eat no meat whatsoever. Observant Jews follow “Kosher” dietary restrictions against eating or even touching pork, based on the Hebrew Old Testament. Ethiopian Orthodox, Seventh-Day Adventist, and some Coptic Christians likewise observe Old Testament restrictions against eating swine meat. Observant Muslims also follow dietary, or “Halal” restrictions against pork, based on the Holy Qur’an.

Pork-avoiding Muslims, Jews, and Christians may not be aware of the specific environmental costs associated with consuming pork, but they are well-versed in the dire spiritual costs. Or at the very least they are familiar with God’s displeasure on the topic. God’s warnings in the Hebrew Old Testament Bible include these verses:

And the pig, though it has hooves, it does not chew the cud– it is unclean for you. You must not eat their meat or touch their carcasses. 
[Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Deuteronomy 14:8]

As for those who consecrate and ritually purify themselves so they can follow their leader and worship in the sacred orchards, those who eat the flesh of pigs and other disgusting creatures, like mice–they will all be destroyed together, says the LORD.
[Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Isaiah 66:17]

Muslims avoid eating pork according to God’s repeated commands in the Holy Qur’an, including this verse:

He has made unlawful for you that which dies of itself and blood and the flesh of swine and that on which the name of any other than Allah has been invoked. But he who is driven by necessity, being neither disobedient nor exceeding the limit, then surely, God is Most Forgiving, Merciful.
[Qur’an 2:173]

Not sharing in pork consumption should not make any of us smug, however. We may feel justifiably relieved for having obeyed our Holy Scriptures, but pointing fingers at pork consumers only deflects attention away from the atrocious actions of the animal industry. The heavy toll of pork production on our shared environment affects all of us, whether we consume pork or not. We all have an equal right and responsibility to speak out against environmental damages being inflicted on our planet.

Pig Poop is a Really Big Problem

The first step to taking action is becoming familiar with the problem. Pig poop is a really big problem. Pig poop from 10 million pigs a day is an enormous environmental disaster. The spread of E. Coli and enterococci bacteria is a very high risk, as well as the creation and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Accompanying the disgusting stench, the risk of respiratory disease is also always present.

Lining huge open pits with a thin layer of clay, pig farm operators dump all their toxic, disease-ridden, raw manure into these pits. EWG reports that there are over 4,000 of these septic ‘lagoons’ in North Carolina. Although the USDA states that lagoons are not allowed in floodplains, the new report found “there are currently 170 waste lagoons located in the state’s 100-year floodplain. What’s more, there are 37 lagoons located within half a mile of a school, and 136 located within half a mile of a public water well.”

I lived in the American South during the 1999 Hurricane Floyd. It flooded much of North Carolina, and I can’t begin to express our horror at all the news broadcasts. Torrential rainfall flooded out the cesspool lagoons and drowned ungodly numbers of pigs. The entire region’s drinking water was contaminated for weeks from all the toxic manure stew and dead pig carcasses. It was undeniably a plague of biblical proportions, and a massive health and environmental disaster.

Environmental costs of pork rose high with massive cleanup efforts after Hurricane Floyd of 1999 in North Carolina. Credit: North Carolina Riverkeepers & Waterkeeper Alliance
Environmental costs of pork rose high with massive cleanup efforts after Hurricane Floyd of 1999 in North Carolina. Credit: North Carolina Riverkeepers & Waterkeeper Alliance

Did the hurricane have any effect on the abusive pig industry? Absolutely not. The waters receded, the mess got shipped out, and everyone said, “God Bless America.” The pig producers waited for everything to dry out, then shipped in a new supply of pigs. They refilled the lagoons with pig poop, and everyone was as happy as…(you guessed it)…pigs in slop.

High Environmental Costs Unfairly Impact the Poor and Minorities

Another way the pig farm operators get rid of massive amounts of pig poop is by spraying it on nearby fields. “This waste can also drift as mist onto neighboring properties,” states EWG, “causing unbearable odors that surrounding communities must endure daily—a problem that becomes even worse during hot and humid summer months.” EWG also notes that these facilities “are largely located in rural areas, where they significantly and disproportionately decrease the quality of life in low-income, communities of color.”

In fact, the report states that only two counties are producing 40 percent of North Carolina’s total wet manure and 18 percent of its dry animal waste. Acting on behalf of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, and Waterkeeper Alliance, in 2014 Earthjustice filed a complaint with the EPA. Alleging that NC pig waste disposal regulations are discriminatory on the basis of race and ethnicity, the Earthjustice complaint was accepted by the EPA.

Earthjustice Attorney Marianne Engelman Lado filed the complaint. “For years residents of eastern North Carolina have called on the state to address the impacts of this industry,” Lado said, “but the state has repeatedly ignored their concerns.” As a result of the complaint, in 2015 the EPA launched an investigation into practices at the NC Department of Environmental Quality.

Lado wants a full accounting of the high environmental costs of pork. The lives of hundreds of thousands of rural residents are daily endangered by unsafe and unsanitary pig farm operations. “North Carolina‘s failure to act represents another example of environmental injustice,” she states, “and it was high time for the EPA to take action and enforce the civil rights of residents.”

Manure Lagoon locations. Credit: EWG and Waterkeepers
Manure Lagoon locations. Credit: EWG and Waterkeepers


(Top image caption: Gestation crates at a pig farm facility. Credit: Wikipedia Commons)


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About the Author

Aisha Abdelhamid (Birth-name Kathleen Vail) is a freelance lifestyle and environmental science writer currently living in Vancouver, BC. Her interests include environmental conservation, climate science, renewable energy, faith-based environmental activism, sustainable economics, corporate social responsibility, creative lifestyles, and healthy living.