Monday, October 17, 2016

Climate change smells bad

However bad a week you have this week, you can at least be glad that you aren't on the North Carolina coast, where Hurricane Matthew made a big mess, including, "carcasses of several thousand drowned hogs and several million drowned chickens and turkeys.... and incalculable amount of animal waste.... " You see, six or seven weeks ago on September 1st, 2016, NC was home to 9 million hogs. In August, 160 million chickens were either born or slaughtered. Hogs in particular produce huge amounts of waste: in 2012, hogs from Smithfield foods (the largest producer of hogs, headquartered in North Carolina) produced 4.7 billion gallons of waste, most of which is either sprayed on fields (leading an epidemiologist at UNC Chapel Hill to say "The eastern part of North Carolina is covered with shit") or it is kept in huge pits called "lagoons," many of which were flooded by the hurricane.

It's a disgusting situation, for sure, and if climate change increases the frequency of hurricanes on the eastern coast of the US as expected, it's not getting better. At the same time, it's easy to wag a finger and call the corporations greedy for producing so many animals in such a small space. However, believe it or not, a lot of people benefit from this as well. It's a multi-billion dollar industry, which, yes, means that capitalist owners are making bank, but it also means that a lot of people all over the world are benefiting from access to cheap meat. This study in the Journal of Nutrition found that access to animal-source foods in places like Kenya and Mexico helps "growth, cognitive function, activity, pregnancy outcome and morbidity." And let me ask: do you think it's better for the kids if the animals are nearby, or if mom or dad can go pick up a pack of meat at the market? Hint: kids living and playing around lots of animal poop probably aren't as healthy as other kids....

In general I think it's a good idea to do dirty things in places with lots of regulation, so that they can be done as cleanly and as safely as possible. So, in my opinion it makes sense to raise animals in the US for export. One question to ask is whether this giant, industrial model is a good one, and there are pros (such as cheap access to meat) as well as cons of that. Medium size farms seem like a good compromise, but needing more farms means taking up even more space, hiring more people, etc.

However, that certainly doesn't mean that the industry should get a blank check. Some of the articles cited above talk about the lax regulatory environment in North Carolina, and that's a problem that needs to be addressed. People who live in these areas, who are generally poor, are not only putting up with constant disgusting smells in the air but genuine hazards to their health from the farms even when rivers are staying inside their banks. Thanks to Jenny Ifft, who point out this study which found that increasing production means that infant mortality rates in the area go up: the pollution actually kills.

The piece from NatGeo has a nice conclusion, in which a hog farmer argues for more regulation. "Regulations, he says, keep him on his toes: 'We're always busy on a farm. We always have more than we can do. And the first thing we're not going to do is waste management. But if we know that inspector's coming in six months, or unannounced, what are we going to do? We're going to do good waste management.'" That would be a great start.

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