The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS)’s recent decision to lift the federal regulation protecting wolves in Wyoming – and allow hunters and ranchers to shoot wolves on sight across 90 percent of the state – has reignited the decades-old conflict between wildlife conservation objectives and the ranching industry. Native predator species, such as coyotes, bears, wolves and mountain lions, are critical to the functioning of ecosystems, helping to keep nature in balance. But as livestock farms and ranches have expanded, problems have often occurred where large predators come into direct contact with farmed animals, such as sheep and cattle. The FWS’s decision will allow anyone to shoot wolves on sight across most of Wyoming, although wolves will still remain off-limits inside the state’s national wildlife refuges and national parks, such as the Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks and the Wind River Indian Reservation. But therein lays the crux of the problem: Most people still see “conservation” and “ranching” as two very separate – and often incompatible – objectives. In the pursuit of maximizing food production, we have done our utmost to eradicate the threat posed by nature to modern farming systems. At the same time, growing recognition of the damage that human activity is inflicting on the environment has fueled campaigns to protect and conserve threatened species and wildlife habitats.
When a government’s independent advisory agency on human health publicly objects to proposals for a new industrial hog operation because of the risks it poses to human health, people tend to take heed.
This is exactly what has happened in a small but very significant planning battle taking place in Great Britain. Midland Pig Producers (MPP) has applied to build a state-of-the-art indoor hog production unit in Derbyshire, which would hold 2,500 sows and produce around 1,000 hogs a week for slaughter – one of the biggest industrial hog farms in the country. But in what might prove to be a fatal blow to MPP’s plans, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) – the U.K. government’s independent advisory body on health – has raised a number of human health concerns about the proposal, including the fact that “recent research has found that those living up to 150m [165 yards] downwind of an intensive swine farming installation could be at risk of adverse human health effects associated with exposure to multi-drug resistant organisms.”
According to the HPA’s statement (1), many scientific studies have demonstrated a causal relationship between ambient emissions and particulates released into the air – such as ammonia and fecal waste dust – and hospital admissions for both respiratory and cardiac diseases and deaths, particularly among older people and, for respiratory illness, children. The HPA also raised concerns about the risks posed by bioaerosols – or airborne particles that contain living organisms, their toxins and waste – which can be inhaled and ingested by humans. The HPA stated that there is significant potential for the generation of bioaerosols at intensive farming installations, with a range of possible health effects – including infectious and antibiotic resistant diseases, acute toxic effects, allergies, cancer, respiratory symptoms and lung function impairment.
Of course, none of this will come as a surprise to anyone in the U.S. who has the misfortune of living near one of thousands of U.S. industrial pig operations across the country. Indeed, U.S. industrial hog operations have been pumping toxic waste into our environment for years – just on a far, far bigger scale.
According to the National Hog Farmer’s latest State of the Industry Report, over 116 million hogs were slaughtered in the U.S. in 2010. Almost 90 percent all pigs slaughtered in the U.S. in 2008 came from hog operations with more than 5,000 pigs, while some of the largest U.S. hog operations can hold over 50,000 head of pigs in confinement. The bottom line is that the majority of pigs slaughtered in the U.S. come from hog operations that are larger than MPP’s proposed unit.
Industrial hog operations like these produce vast quantities of concentrated waste called swine effluent – a toxic concoction of pig feces, heavy metals, bacteria and, of course, residues from the concoction of pharmaceuticals that are given to the pigs to keep them alive in the filthy, confined conditions. Most U.S. factory farms pump this swine effluent in huge nearby open tanks or cesspools. Some of these lagoons are as big as several football fields, each holding hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of gallons of putrefying swine effluent.
Being exposed to the elements, these lagoons emit toxic gases such as ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, as well as methane, a key greenhouse gas. As this swine effluent is expensive to store or treat, most industrial systems periodically pump the waste out of the lagoons and spray it on the surrounding fields. The problem is that it is often sprayed at such high application rates or so often that the soil and plants cannot even begin to absorb it, let alone actually utilize it. This level of over-application frequently leads to highly toxic run-off, where the water-soluble nutrients find their way into our waterways and groundwater systems in vast quantities, polluting our drinking water and rivers, leaving our waterways dead. Accidents and storm floods have also led to massive releases of the toxic waste into waterways. This toxic run off is directly contributing to the 230 recognized oxygen-deprived dead zones along the U.S. coast, such as in the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Researchers from Texas A&M University are predicting that the dead zone in the Gulf will exceed 9,400 square miles this year, which would make it one of the largest ever recorded.
A significant body of scientific research already proves that the livestock waste management practices found on most industrial livestock operations in the U.S. are often not fit for the purpose and do not adequately or effectively protect water resources from contamination with excessive nutrients, microbial pathogens and the pharmaceutical residues present in the swine effluent and other industrial farming waste. A 2007 review paper published in Environmental Health Perspectives (2) states, “Impacts on surface water sources and wildlife have been documented in many agricultural areas in the United States. Potential impacts on human and environmental health from long-term inadvertent exposure to water contaminated with pharmaceuticals and other compounds are a growing public concern.”
The storage and frequent spreading of this toxic swine effluent also has a significant impact on the health of communities living nearby. A growing body of research reveals that the toxic emissions which U.S. industrial hog operations release into the atmosphere every day – including gases, particulates and bioaerosols such as hydrogen sulphide, fecal waste dust, and bacteria –are causing serious adverse health effects on U.S. citizens and making their lives a misery. A March 2011 paper published in the journal Epidemiology (3) examined the health of residents in 16 communities in a region of North Carolina that is densely populated with industrial hog operations. The researchers looked at the associations of reported hog odor and of monitored air pollutants with the physical symptoms and lung function of people living within 1.5 miles of hog operations. They found that air pollutants from the hog operations were causing acute physical symptoms, including eye and nasal irritation, respiratory symptoms, difficulty breathing, wheezing, chest tightness, and nausea, among other symptoms. The evidence was so great that the researchers concluded, “Exposure to air pollution from hog operations is an environmental injustice in rural areas hosting facilities that supply pork to populations spared the burdens of its production.”
We already know that industrial farming is a perfect breeding ground for the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria, so the U.K.’s HPA’s concerns that the antibiotic resistant bacteria found on industrial hog operations could pose a real health risk to nearby human populations is clearly justified – and represents a significant public health issue for U.S. citizens. As U.S. hog operations are not subject to the same strict controls on the use of antibiotics as found on European farms, more U.S.-focused research is urgently needed to establish the risks.
In the drive to produce ever-cheaper meat it would appear that the pursuit of profit comes before all other concerns, including our health. Yet as the public finally wakes up to the huge societal costs of industrialized livestock production, including the emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria, the explosion in diet-related ill health and the impact on rural economies, and as people recognize the unsustainable nature of industrialized livestock production, with its dependence on ever-diminishing supplies of fossil fuels and immense greenhouse gas emissions, the opportunity to radically change the way we farm is becoming more realistic – and more urgent – than ever.
1. Derbyshire County Council planning application consultation responses for the erection of a 2,500 breeding sow pig rearing unit near Foston. Available online at:
2. Burkholder, J., Libra, B., Weyer. P. et al. (2007). Impacts of waste from concentrated animal feeding operations on water quality. Environmental Health Perspectives. 115:308–312.
3. Schinasi, L., Horton, R.A., Guidry, V.T., Wing, S., Marshall, S.W., Morland, K.B. (2011). Air pollution, lung function, and physical symptoms in communities near concentrated swine feeding operations. Epidemiology. 22:208–215.