by Kelly Lester
Policy Analyst for the Center for Food, Power, and Life, John Locke Foundation
Note: This is the last installment of my three-part series on hog farming in North Carolina. Part 1 focused on the history of hog farming, and Part 2 discussed alternative methods of hog waste management.
Hog farming serves as a cornerstone of the North Carolina economy, having a longstanding presence and experiencing significant growth in the late 20th century. Contributing approximately $10 billion annually to the state’s economy and generating over 40,000 jobs, this industry holds substantial importance. In regions of Eastern North Carolina, the ratio of pigs to people has been estimated at a staggering 30 to 1, highlighting the scale of its influence. North Carolina ranks as the nation’s third-largest pork producer, trailing only Iowa and Minnesota.
Despite its economic significance, however, the hog farming industry has not escaped controversy. Extensive studies have highlighted the health risks associated with exposure to hog waste. Concerns revolve around potential health effects stemming from hog waste pollution in water sources, including increased antibiotic resistance and ailments like vomiting and diarrhea. Another recurring problem is the persisting odor in nearby neighborhoods due to prevailing waste management practices.
In response to research findings on health outcomes and the environmental impact of Hurricane Floyd damaging hog waste lagoons in 1997, state policymakers imposed a moratorium on new or expanding hog farm permits. Having this regulatory halt in place surprisingly did not prevent critics from claiming “environmental racism” regarding the placement of hog farms.
Opponents of hog farms use the term “environmental racism” to characterize the concentration of hog farming facilities and subsequent environmental hazards in specific North Carolina communities. It suggests not only that marginalized communities, particularly those comprising higher proportions of people of color, bear a disproportionate burden of negative environmental impacts, but also that they do so because of deliberate, systemic discrimination. More thoughtful analysts, however, have explained that attributing these issues solely to “environmental racism” oversimplifies many intricate factors contributing to the placement and problems of hog farming.
First, there is the crucial question of the sequence of events. To label something systemically racist, there must be evidence of systemic actions disproportionately aimed at and affecting people of color. Yet historical data analyzed by the Pork Council reveal that hog farms were not intentionally set up in predominantly black communities. Demographic changes may have taken place in these areas over the past 25 years, but there is little evidence that minorities were targeted when the state issued permits.
In reality, while present-day communities affected by hog farming impacts often include predominantly black and Latino populations, these disparities may be more closely linked to geographic placement, economic considerations, and regulatory decisions rather than explicit racial biases. Issues stem from land-use policies, economic factors, and historical development patterns rather than intentional discrimination.
Policies addressing rural poverty should adopt a holistic approach rather than tailored solutions based on skin color.
Frequently, communities affected by adverse hog farming effects are low-income areas with limited political influence and economic resources. They may be more vulnerable to environmental hazards owing to their limited means to advocate or influence regulatory decisions, irrespective of racial composition. Therefore, while acknowledging the existing issue, attributing it to racism is inaccurate.
Focusing on environmental disparities associated with hog farming exclusively through the lens of “environmental racism” risks narrowing policy responses to racial categorization rather than to addressing broader socioeconomic factors. This approach could impede the development of comprehensive solutions, neglecting the multifaceted nature of the problem.
Communities near hog farms certainly require relief, but finding solutions isn’t as straightforward as altering hog waste management practices. Despite studies exploring alternative waste uses, lagoon systems remain the most cost-efficient disposal method. The government’s hesitation to approve other waste management methods makes it unjust solely to blame hog farmers for the issues, let alone castigate them for “racism.” Since 1997, farmers using lagoon systems have been unable to expand, highlighting the regulatory constraints they face.
As discussed in the previous brief, North Carolinians need the state to reevaluate its role concerning hog farming and waste management. Less regulation, not more, would lead to more technological innovation and competition and encourage hog farmers to seek and adopt alternative waste management practices, which would also serve their surrounding communities better. One way forward would be to create a regulatory sandbox for agriculture, allowing hog farmers to explore alternative waste management technologies without excessive regulatory hurdles. Moreover, policies addressing rural poverty should adopt a holistic approach rather than tailored solutions based on skin color.
In conclusion, the stagnation of North Carolina’s hog industry cannot persist indefinitely. Health concerns for communities near hog farms deserve attention. However, branding an entire industry as “racist” is perilous rhetoric that detracts from meaningful solutions. A balanced approach is necessary, prioritizing health concerns without unjustly targeting an entire industry and its people.