Hogwash and its aftermath: Climate change and corporate accountability after Hurricane Florence

CAFO Breach

CAFO Breach, September 19, 2019. Photo by Kemp Burdette, Cape Fear Riverkeeper

The aftermath of Hurricane Florence in North Carolina demonstrates what climate change will increasingly do to communities and landscapes, especially when governments are unprepared. While the impacts of the flooding are devastating and still unfolding, one stands out in stark relief: The loss of thousands of pigs and millions of poultry—and toxic leakage of their waste.  

North Carolina is home to the second-largest concentration of pig-raising facilities in the United States (behind only Iowa). The state has more than 2,200 pork CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) holding more than nine million pigs and more than 3,900 poultry operations. More than 90 percent of that state’s pork production is controlled by just one company: Smithfield. Smithfield’s parent company, the Chinese WH Group, is the largest pork processor in the world and worth $15 billion.

The irony: CAFO greenhouse gases help intensify climate events like Hurricane Florence

Overapplying manure in fields, as was done just prior to Hurricane Florence, emits climate warming nitrous oxide gas into the air. Prior to Florence, this was used as a strategy to avoid manure leakage from lagoons. Producers were emptying “4 to 5 feet of liquefied manure from the pits ahead of the storm” and spraying it on fields. Not only did this manure emit greenhouse gases (GHGs), but it was then summarily washed into floodwaters that spread over a vast terrain. These impacts are in addition to those of manure lagoon breaches and flooding that has been widely documented.

This raises a fundamental question: How much do we really know about CAFOs, their emissions, and what hurricanes like Florence do to these emissions?

Ironically, North Carolina’s CAFOs play a role in creating stronger hurricanes that will devastate the state with increasing frequency and intensity. There is alarming new evidence that impacts of climate change have been severely underestimated, particularly because rising temperatures are setting into motion an acceleration of warming—much earlier than we thought. Intensification of climate change means more severe hurricanes and storms like Hurricane Florence.

NC Hog Farms
Sources: North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality; South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/09/13/climate/hurricane-florence-environmental-hazards.html


North Carolina’s CAFOs can produce up to 10 billion gallons of untreated animal waste a year, stored in manure lagoons onsite. Manure from CAFOs generate several potent gases that contribute to global warming. For instance, nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year time horizon; methane is 30 times more potent as a GHG over that same time period. Ammonia releases both carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide indirectly when it is released through animal urine and manure lagoons. A peer-reviewed study conducted last year found that the EPA is underestimating methane emissions from on-farm manure lagoons (on dairy farms) by nearly half (48 percent).    

Even under normal weather conditions, manure lagoons generate waste that is a toxic cocktail of antibiotic resistant pathogens, harmful chemicals and gases such as ammonia, methane and nitrous oxide that warm the planet. CAFOs routinely dispose untreated animal waste on adjacent croplands. Problems arise when CAFO operators apply far more waste than the land can absorb and this untreated waste permeates the surroundings and flows into local waters, “contaminating waterways and damaging the health of downstream communities.” Meanwhile, the federal government has failed to enforce and strengthen regulations intended to minimize water pollution: Only 30 percent of the largest industrialized livestock facilities have permits as required by the Clean Water Act, according to a 2017 EPA report. Moreover, North Carolina, like other states with a lot of CAFOs, has one of the lowest level of Clean Water Act compliance.

Smithfield: The 9th largest GHG emitter

This brings us back to Smithfield. In July, IATP and GRAIN calculated the GHG emissions of 35 of the world’s largest meat and dairy companies in our report Emissions Impossible using a methodology developed by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Together, just 20 of these companies spewed more emissions in 2016 than ExxonMobil. Smithfield is the ninth largest GHG emitter on this list, and its emissions are growing. So is Smithfield. Last year, its parent company reported a 7 percent profit increase in 2016.  Their 2017-2018 quarterly report mirrors this trend with a 7 percent increase in hogs processed (adding close to a million more pigs) and a 5.7 percent growth in total revenue.   

Smithfield recognizes it must address its climate footprint—it pledged to reduce its overall emissions 25 percent by 2025. So, relevant questions now would be, is Smithfield measuring the GHG impact of Smithfield-contracted or owned CAFOs and their manure lagoons in North Carolina, before, during and after Hurricane Florence? What should be its contribution to loss and damage in North Carolina given that the manure lagoons are an intrinsic part of its growth story?

Less than 20 years ago, then-Governor Bob Hunt of North Carolina announced a plan to phase out all open-air lagoons and manure spray fields because of their associated environmental catastrophes, including a 40 million gallon spill that decimated fish in nearby estuaries. The industry responded in kind with a $2.6 million public relations campaign that blamed the problems on municipal sewage systems rather than its pork operations. Thus, this problem has continued to fester, even as hurricanes in North Carolina have been intensifying, such as Hurricane Matthew just two years ago.

Smithfield is donating 120,000 pounds of protein to two local food banks in North Carolina and another $100,000 to the American Red Cross in response to Hurricane Florence. Meanwhile, as of October 3, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality had registered 38 manure lagoons that had either been structurally damaged, breached or overtopped with nine more that were inundated with surface water flowing into the lagoons, and another 15 that were likely to flood over soon.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Florence’s damage to farmers (for example those growing sweet potatoes and other crops) is estimated to cost billions of dollars. “…what a disaster does is it takes all of the resilience out of the farm,” said Scott Marlow, a senior specialist at RAFI, a North Carolina nonprofit that supports family farms. “So all of their savings, all their retirement, anything that they had extra, everything is gone, and they've spent so much time and they spent so much money trying to recover.” Overall costs to the economy are expected to reach as high as $50 billion.

Isn’t it time that corporate wealth derived from industrial pig production go towards loss and damage from climate-induced hurricanes? Especially since the industry is permitted by the government to release GHGs unabated—something that will only intensify such storms in coming decades.