by Kelly Lester
Policy Analyst for the Center for Food, Power, and Life, John Locke Foundation
Note: This is Part Two of a three-part series on hog farming in North Carolina. Part One covered the history of hog farming in the state, and Part Three will discuss the problems with the left’s charge of “environmental racism.”
The management of hog waste in North Carolina has garnered much attention and controversy over the past two decades. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd brought to light the severe environmental and public health concerns associated with the traditional open-pit lagoon system used for hog waste disposal. In response to these issues, in addition to a moratorium placed on new and expanding hog farms, in 2000 the North Carolina Attorney General entered into an agreement with Smithfield Foods and five other companies to explore alternatives. As the 25th anniversary of the agreement approaches, however, it’s evident that the situation remains largely unchanged, and the need for alternative hog waste management approaches persists.
This brief will delve into the ongoing challenges of hog waste management in North Carolina from a free-market perspective, critique the government’s role, and explore alternative solutions while emphasizing individual freedom and property rights.
Hog farming in North Carolina primarily relies on the open-pit lagoon system, which is the most cost-effective system but has long been criticized for its environmental and health hazards. Concerns about lagoon overflows during severe weather events, resulting in the contamination of waterways and local communities, have been at the forefront of the debate. The absence of market-driven alternatives has been exacerbated by regulatory and government interventions, limiting the freedom of hog farmers and hampering innovation in this sector. Some of those innovations include:
Many of these alternatives were considered in response to the Smithfield Agreement. Unfortunately, that agreement failed to outline key performance metrics properly. Under the agreement, issues such as potential risk of water pollution and smell were required to be reduced in an “economically feasible” way, but it did not specify by how much. The effect was to discourage the wide implementation of any alternatives tested.
The state’s responses to the hog waste management issue in North Carolina have been inadequate and, at times, detrimental to the principles of individual liberty, free markets, and property rights. Typical of top-down government responses, they have featured:
The government should encourage and allow the market to drive technological innovation in hog waste management. Entrepreneurs and farmers should be free to experiment with alternative waste disposal methods, such as closed-loop systems, waste-to-energy technologies, or other potential solutions. Consumer preferences and innovations, rather than government mandates, should guide industry practices.
This is where the idea of an “agricultural sandbox” could be so beneficial. In 2021 the North Carolina General Assembly created a regulatory sandbox for finance and insurance products and services. With guidance from the North Carolina Innovation Council, the state’s regulatory sandbox temporarily waives certain regulations for emerging technologies, products, and services to see if they can succeed.
Expanding the state’s regulatory sandbox to include agricultural technology, products, and services would allow farmers and agribusinesses who opt into the sandbox the opportunity to try innovative technologies that the standard regulatory approach would preemptively block. Many states have regulatory sandboxes for select industries, and Utah has an open-ended regulatory sandbox.
A competitive market with greater regulatory freedom would encourage hog farmers to adopt more efficient and sustainable waste management practices voluntarily. By allowing a diversity of approaches, the market can reward the most effective and eco-friendly methods, meeting consumer demands and strike a better environmental balance without government interference.
Protecting the safety of people living near hog farms means proper protection of the property rights of individuals affected by hog farm operations. The tort system should enable affected parties to seek compensation when their property or health is harmed. The expectation of such consequences would give hog farms a direct incentive to adopt cleaner and safer waste management practices.
Hog waste management in North Carolina presents an opportunity to reevaluate the government’s role and uphold the principles of individual liberty, property rights, and free-market competition. A property rights–based approach, where affected parties have more freedom to seek redress for harm, would provide a more equitable and efficient solution. Technological innovation and competition within a deregulated market would empower hog farmers to seek and adopt alternative waste management practices. By embracing the time-honored principles of free markets and limited government, North Carolina could find a path forward that respects individual freedom, enhances environmental responsibility, and supports a thriving hog farming industry through voluntary, market-driven alternatives to the current open-pit lagoon system.