CHURCHVILLE, Va.—The Sierra Club, the San Francisco-based environmental group, has escalated its campaign against large "confinement" hog farms with a slick full-color brochure titled "Is Piglet Poisoning the Well?"
I don't want to be harsh with the Sierra Club. It has lofty conservation goals, and Executive Director Carl Pope has recently come out in support of high-yielding crops and biotechnology to help save room for wildlife.
But it has the hog issue backward. It's arguing we should go back to the little family farms that kept a few hogs outdoors.
When I was a kid, the hogs next door tore up their pasture with their rooting and ruined the little creek with their wallowing and wastes. The odor was fierce.
The confinement hogs next door to my small farm are indoors. We don't see them or smell them. Pig wastes are spread over many acres of nearby pasture.
We see no impairment of the river that flows through the pasture. (We don't try to drink from it, but it was never safe to drink from a surface stream anyway, as raccoons are a major source of E. coli bacteria here.)
The larger issue that should interest the Sierra Club is the rapid rise in world demand for pork. This means today's 1 billion breeding hogs will probably expand to 3 billion by 2050.
For the sake of the environment, we had better hope those additional 2 billion hogs are raised in confinement, where they take far less land from nature and we can use their wastes as organic fertilizer on feed crops.
Let me debate the Sierra Club's brochure.
SIERRA CLUB: "When a single hog operation may produce more sewage than Los Angeles, it's time to take action."
A: I only wish Los Angeles dealt with its waste as effectively as a zero-discharge hog farm. Los Angeles puts half the nitrogen from its sewage into the air. The other half is channeled into the nearest river.
The Black River in North Carolina drains the most intensive hog production region in the country. Yet the Black is currently rated one of the state's "outstanding resource waters." State data show the level of nitrogen in the water has not increased in the last 15 years, although the number of hogs has risen almost fivefold.
SIERRA CLUB: "We need strong national standards to protect us all from the effects of Confined Animal Feeding Operations."
(These are described by the Sierra Club as "giant corporate-owned livestock factories, which churn out cattle, hogs, chickens and turkeys in staggering numbers."
A: What's stronger than the zero-discharge requirement that most states already impose on confinement hog farmers? Right now, any hog farm discharging wastes into any stream or polluting any ground water can be fined and ultimately put out of business.
SIERRA CLUB: "Because they have devastated rural communities, family farms and our natural heritage, absolutely no more of these units should be constructed until national safeguards are in place."
A: Small, family outdoor hog farms have been disappearing from the Corn Belt faster than the big hog farms were being built. That's because farm kids would rather take a job in the city than stay on a small outdoor hog farm earning the equivalent of minimum wage.
Meanwhile, confinement hog farms took Sampson and Duplin counties in North Carolina from the bottom of the state's income chart up to parity with the rest of the state.
SIERRA CLUB: "Although other industries must comply with the Clean Water Act, standards for CAFOs are not included. To protect our rivers, streams, lakes and tap water from CAFOs we need either new provisions under the Clean Water Act, or the standards for industry need to be applied."
A: The Clean Water Act does not list nitrogen and phosphorous as pollutants. (These substances are used in fertilizers and are contained in animal waste.)
If we decide to include them in the pollutant list, we'll have to spend $50 billion or so to add a third stage of treatment to city sewage plants.
Nor will that put the big confinement hog farms out of business, because no one has been able to show they're polluting the streams.
I recently visited the big Premium Standard hog complex in Missouri, which is being sued by 110 of its neighbors with the Sierra Club's help. Yet the Sierra Club hasn't filed any water impairment data.
I know they've taken water samples from the area, so I'm sure they would have included them in the lawsuit if the samples had demonstrated quality problems.
SIERRA CLUB: "State and local governments must retain the right to establish even more comprehensive programs on CAFO waste disposal than the national standards, due to differences in landscape, rainfall, climate, population and other unique local factors."
A: If these local factors are so important, what's the point of national standards? (Other than creating a crisis atmosphere so the Clean Water Act can be renewed with sweeping new powers.)
SIERRA CLUB: "Use of (animal waste) lagoons and aerial spraying of liquid manure onto adjacent lands must be phased out and new waste handling technologies must be adopted.
It is often appropriate to apply manure to adjoining croplands, but it must be applied in amounts that are safe and far away from surface water or wells."
A: I'm glad the Sierra Club recognizes that using manure on cropland is beneficial. The only realistic alternative is to dry the manure (with fossil fuels?) and burn it (think of the horrible impact on air quality).
There is a new manure spreader on the market that scrapes fresh earth over manure, eliminating odor. Tomorrow's technology may have still other answers that will allow us to have the hog farms, their profits, their jobs and an odor-free local environment.
The global market will demand an increasing amount of livestock for high protein diets. Not even the Sierra Club can save tomorrow's environment without the animals being raised in confinement.
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