Friday, November 27, 2009

Unholy sh**! Pork and groundwater

What do pigs have to do with groundwater? Well (no pun intended), maybe a lot.

Rolling Stone reports that if you live in North Carolina, Utah, or a few other states, your water's health is compromised by the enormous amount of hog feces routinely spilled into it. Millions of gallons of it, untreated, flows into watersheds where it can make people sick, wreak havoc and reek of putrefaction, wreck local ecosystems, and potentially flow out to sea to compromise sea life. And one company in particular, Smithfield Pork, is the worst of them all.

How bad? I think the only appropriate term might be catastrophically sh**ty. Check it:

Smithfield estimates that its total sales will reach $11.4 billion this year. So prodigious is its fecal waste, however, that if the company treated its effluvia as big-city governments do -- even if it came marginally close to that standard -- it would lose money. So many of its contractors allow great volumes of waste to run out of their slope-floored barns and sit blithely in the open, untreated, where the elements break it down and gravity pulls it into groundwater and river systems. Although the company proclaims a culture of environmental responsibility, ostentatious pollution is a linchpin of Smithfield's business model.

A lot of pig shit is one thing; a lot of highly toxic pig shit is another. The excrement of Smithfield hogs is hardly even pig shit: On a continuum of pollutants, it is probably closer to radioactive waste than to organic manure. The reason it is so toxic is Smithfield's efficiency. The company produces 6 billion pounds of packaged pork each year. That's a remarkable achievement, a prolificacy unimagined only two decades ago, and the only way to do it is to raise pigs in astonishing, unprecedented concentrations.

Smithfield's pigs live by the hundreds or thousands in warehouse-like barns, in rows of wall-to-wall pens. Sows are artificially inseminated and fed and delivered of their piglets in cages so small they cannot turn around. Forty fully grown 250-pound male hogs often occupy a pen the size of a tiny apartment. They trample each other to death. There is no sunlight, straw, fresh air or earth. The floors are slatted to allow excrement to fall into a catchment pit under the pens, but many things besides excrement can wind up in the pits: afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs -- anything small enough to fit through the foot-wide pipes that drain the pits. The pipes remain closed until enough sewage accumulates in the pits to create good expulsion pressure; then the pipes are opened and everything bursts out into a large holding pond.

All of this has been tacitly okay'd by governmental inaction over the years. I don't think it's hyperbole to say that this should be criminal. It should not be within one company's or industry's purview to compromise the health and welfare of thousands of people and billions of plants and animals at limited expense for the sake of lining the pockets of a few and providing you or me with a cheap pulled pork sandwich, side of ham, sausages, or hot dogs.

And you don't need to be a vegetarian to recognize how insane this system of production is when it comes to total health. However, if you are inclined you might want to see the previous post on Peter Singer. But the industrial system pumps pigs full of drugs to prevent diseases necessarily thrust on them by their living conditions. They literally live encased in their own diseases and are held up in abject misery by antibiotics. Of course, these diseases and the drugs run into water tables. Anyone who has followed this blog for the last couple of months will have seen other pieces that deal with agriculture. A few months ago, I posted on chickens and their mass production following a Johns Hopkins study. Similarly, we did a posting on cows in Wisconsin from the New York Times.

Most of you reading this are current or future teachers. Our schools buy from these companies. What is the message there? What is the lesson to be learned? What does where our food comes from, how it's produced, what its costs are, how those costs accrue, how some costs are hidden, and what we read and don't read on those packages tell us about what we value? Would you be willing to show 11-year-olds this process and then ask them to eat it?

The questions are, "Should we eat this way? Why? What can you do about it?"

But this is something we have to face. If we want clean water and want bottled water to go away, then we have to confront the entrenched web of our industrialized economic habits that pollute. They say they pollute on our behalf. Is that really true?

I want to be unequivocal here. I believe that our diets unnecessarily hurt other animals and poison our water. I think that anyone who reads this post and continues to buy a Smithfield pork chop is deciding to poison someone else's water and water that sustains non-human life.

I want to say that I am someone like to Smithfield's president's caricature:

"The animal-rights people," he once said, "want to impose a vegetarian's society on the U.S. Most vegetarians I know are neurotic." When the Environmental Protection Agency cited Smithfield for thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act, Luter responded by comparing what he claimed were the number of violations the company could theoretically have been charged with (2.5 million, by his calculation) to the number of documented violations up to that point (seventy-four). "A very, very small percent," he said.

I don't "want to impose a vegetarian's society on the U.S." But I do think that we must confront these issues. 2.5 million violations of the Clean Water Act? As I said earlier, this is criminal. Absolutely criminal.

They have outsourced their responsibility to a corporation that wants to keep us blind because its methods are so reprehensible that people hate living near them (see The Way We Eat). That is my position.

What's yours?

No comments:

Post a Comment