A Discussion on the Controversies Surrounding the Pig Farming Industry and Its Effects on the Environment

The hog farming industry has always been one of controversy when it comes to its effects on the environment, and with the green house gas emissions a pig farm produces and the spread of disease through swine this is with good reason. Although the truth is that the industry has come a very long way in the past 50 years in regards to its sustainability. The pig farming industry as a whole has been able to reduce its overall environmental impact and natural resources use by 50% in the past 50 years according to a study done by Garth Boyd a well known researcher on environmental footprints (Boyd). Even with the improvements made by the pig farming industry there is still a need for change and major improvement in sustainable practices.

First I will discuss how the pig farming industry effects our environment. Although it is true a pig farm needs water and land to operate, the use of those natural resources is not the major problem with pig farms. It is what goes in the air that is of concern. The pig manure and the decomposition of the manure over time release three major gases of concern, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide. There are other gaseous compounds that may be emitted from decomposing manure but these three are the principal gases in emissions. The level of emissions released by a farm will vary based on the amount of manure being managed as well as the type of manure management system the farm has in place. Flush pit with lagoon, deep pig with below building storage, dry manure bedding and others can all affect the volume of emissions released. The last factor is the location of the farm, hotter and more humid climates will release more gas. These gases; similar to the ones released by cars and other agriculture sectors slowly burn away our protective atmosphere causing climate change.

Since we know that the manure is the primary cause of gas emissions on a pig farm, we also know that it is the amount of feed you give to a pig that will in turn cause them to create more manure and release more gases. According to Dr. Hostetler of the pork checkoff (The checkoff organization for the pork commodity ) “Animal feed is the biggest contributor to each of the carbon, water and land footprints“ (Hostetler). I had the chance to interview Dr. Hostetler who with his 30 years of experience and research done in the pig industry kept circling back to feed as the number one contributor to a pig farms environmental impact.

Before I propose some solutions to the growing release on greenhouse gases on hog farms I feel we should look at the many improvements the industry has made so far with trying to halt the effects on the environment. Now with 300 tons of ammonia being pumped out of North Carolina's hog industry alone according to research done by Sustainabletable.org (“Air Quality'), there is definitely a need for action, just imagine what is being pumped out of farms across the country. Most of these improvements have been with the goal of reducing the amount of manure produced in mind, which is done by reducing the feed needed. Improvements in animal genetics have allowed pigs to gain more weight from less feed, improved diets have been designed to match exactly the pigs caloric needs for their age, sex and stage of growth ensuring the animal receives the proper nutrition  wasting feed or over feeding nutrients that are excreted into manure, improvements in animal housing which allowed farms to regulate temperatures and keep pigs healthier and protected from diseases and parasites, healthier pigs require less food which is better for the environment, all of these improvements have contributed to the overall carbon footprint of pig farming down by 50% as I said earlier. All of these improvements and methods have all been documented by Garth Boyd working under Camco has I stated earlier.

Now while the overall carbon footprint is down 50% which is an amazing effort on the industries part, if you owe a million dollars and cut that by 50% you're still in debt half a million dollars, which is 50% better yet still in a bad spot. An article by the Grace Communications Foundations on Sustainabletable.org talks about research done in the past years citing just how horrible the pig farming industry is for the environment. It sheds some light on the 70 percent of workers on CAFOs or concentrated animal feeding operations that experience acute bronchitis and the 25 percent that contract chronic bronchitis. The communities and families that live nearby hog farms that have experienced respiratory issues, it cites a study done in a Utah town near a hog farm found 4 times an increase in hospitalization due to diarrhea and 3 times increase in hospitalizations due to respiratory problems (“Air Quality”). 80 percent of all U.S. ammonia emissions come from livestock manure, the NAS or National Academy of Sciences has a report that shows that gases from hog farms released into the atmosphere "can, in sequence, impact atmospheric visibility, soil acidity, forest productivity, terrestrial ecosystem biodiversity, steam acidity, and costal productivity.”(Hagenstein) All these things show just how bad hog farms still are for our environment.

Pig farms are bad for the environment, some people might ask “why should I care?”. Well these toxic fumes induce climate change and increase the effects of global warming. Nine of the ten warmest years since 1880 have been in the last decade according to NASA (“Graphic: hottest decade'). Rising sea levels, Droughts, and increase in hurricanes and glacier melting preventing thousands of  polar bears and other wildlife from having homes. This planet is everyone's and this affects everyone. We all want a healthy planet for not only us when we get older but for our kids and generations to come. The pig farming industry isn't the sole contributor or even the biggest contributor, but it's still an issue that needs to be talked about.

I have two solutions to help with the release of gases into the atmosphere on hog farms. The first one would be a kind of “Biodigester” Like that on a North Carolina farm. Nicole Wendee did a piece about this exact farm showing how the farm had implemented a system that broke down manure and used the gas and turned it into electricity (Wendee). This system is actually able to run 5 of the 9 hog barns on the farm, including lights and heating. The extra methane is burned and converted into carbon dioxide which is less harmful to the environment. With such large amounts of gas and energy being generated daily on a hog farm, failing to capture it is such wasted potential. This type of system though is not wide spread, as Dr. Hostetler explained when I asked why you don't find these systems more often “Generally speaking, the amount of power that would be generated by a pig farm would exceed the amount of power that could be effectively used on the farm itself. While excess power could be placed out on the electric grid for general distribution, in most parts of the country the utility companies will not pay market value” (Hostetler) He goes on to explain that utilities require a constant stream of energy and farms would get penalized for not putting out a certain amount to the grid daily, which just can't be guaranteed. Utility companies not paying full price for the power generated from a pig farm and the farm getting penalized for not meeting daily power quotas bring me to my second solution, a government enforced financial incentive.

Generally speaking if businesses have to decide between making money and saving the environment they're almost always going to save money. Which is why I think government should incentivize both. People who own hybrid or electric cars already get tax credits for helping out the environment and they save money by not using gas and obtaining tax credits, so why shouldn't a pig farm? The amount of good a hybrid car would do for the environment over its lifespan is nothing compared to what a pig farm capturing methane and converting to electricity would do for the environment. The pork farming industry is a multi billion dollar a year industry with plenty of investors who look for and need a profit every month. Saving the environment has to be more than the right thing to do it also needs to be the profitable thing to do. 

Next, some more hands on government involvement needs to happen. Various factors decide how much methane is released into the environment, again as Dr. Hostetler noted. The climate in which the pigs are in, the way the manure is stored and handled, caloric needs of the pig and how much food they receive. So I think all these factors should be researched and we need to find out which combination of factors creates the least amount of overall footprint. Once the perfect formula has been discovered it should be required as what you need in place to run a pig farm. This may seem ridiculous but we already do this as a society for more ‘immediate' dangers. Buildings need to be built a certain way to be earthquake resistant, you can't use lead paint indoors and restaurants need to be held up to certain standards. These are all examples of regulations government has put in for everybody's health and safety. The emissions released on a hog farm and anywhere else needs to be treated as a more immediate threat. Pig farms and all agricultural farms should be held up to the pinnacle of environmental friendliness. There are already some government regulations in place for specifically pig farms as Robert Chambers explains in his Factsheet article, although the regulations in place are described as room storing manure needing to be “Properly ventilated” and ventilation systems to "operate at all times”(Chambers). This type of vague requirement does not lay out any kind of standard that might be better for the environment, pigs, or surrounding communities.

Some opponents of these proposals might argue "well that's too hard you can't get government to do anything” or “okay what will those changes really do?” Well yes there are a lot of powers at be that would not like to see regulations put on the pork industry like the Pork Checkoff, there are always opponents to every reform or new regulation and things still get done when society wills it. As for the benefits of the changes I have proposed I will explain. The biodigester type system becoming standardized through government incentive would clearly reduce the pig farming industries footprint by nature of recycling, but also when more and more pig farms are generating electricity on a more regular and wider basis the utility companies will start to buy it and the excess electricity will go into the grid potentially lowering utility cost for communities but certainly furthering sustainability of the pig farming industry. The research that I proposed is very important because that will help us understand what is absolutely the best way to take care of pigs and their manure before putting any kind of regulation on how farmers must operate. If everyone is doing things in the most efficient and environmentally friendly way then the industry reduces their impact on the environment which will help to slow climate change and preserve our planet.

There is no doubt that the pork farming industry has come very far in the past 50 years with its sustainable practices. It's using less land, water and putting fewer emissions in the air than ever before, but the truth is that the agricultural industry is responsible for 51% of that. With the health concerns surrounding workers, local communities and the environment it is so important we do everything we can to improve the industry and help preserve our planet. More research going into the proper housing and care for pigs to maximize efficiency and minimize environmental impact, and incentives being in place for farmers to start to use biodigesters for converting methane into electricity would be some major improvements to the industry.

Work Cited

  1. "Air Quality." GRACE Communications Foundation. GRACE Communications Foundation, 25 Mar. 2011. Web. 29 Apr. 2016.
  2. Boyd, Garth. "A 50-Year Comparison of the Carbon Footprint and Resource Use of the US Swine Herd: 1959 - 2009." Pork.org Research Search. Camco, 22 May 2012. Web. 29 Apr. 2016.
  3. Chambers, Robert. "Methane Gas in Hog Barns." Methane Gas in Hog Barns. N.p., Mar. 2013. Web. 30 Apr. 2016. 
  4. "Graphic: Hottest Decade." Climate Change: Vital Signs of the planet. NASA, 2012. Web. 29 Apr. 2016
  5. Hagenstein, Perry. Air Emissions from Animal Feeding Operations: Current Knowledge, Future Needs. Washington, D.C.: National Academies, 2003. Print.
  6. Hostetler, Chris. "Questions about Hog Farming." Message to the author. 19 Apr. 2016. E mail.
  7. Kirkhorn, Steven, and Marc Schenker. "Human Health Effects of Agriculture: Physical Diseases and Illnesses." National Ag Safety Database. N.p., 2001. Web. 6 May 2016
  8. Ruddek, Joseph. "Adverse Health Effects." The VR Book (2015): 159.Ncifap.org. Mar. 2008. Web. 9 May 2016.
  9. Wendee, Nicole. "June 2016." Discover Magazine. Discover, 21 Feb. 2014. Web. 16 Apr. 2016