Science, Politics Shape Future of Hog Farming

Published February 1, 2004

Editor’s note: In the January 2004 issue of Environment & Climate News, Managing Editor James M. Taylor examined how scientists are researching alternatives to open-air hog waste lagoons. Some technologies promise environmental improvements over the status quo, but would be much costlier than lagoons. In this final installment in our three-part series, Taylor examines how environmental science and politics my affect the future of hog farms.

Inside the Washington DC beltway, there aren’t many hogs, farmers, or people who’ve spent time on or near a hog farm. Yet it is here that a battle is raging that will shape the destiny of U.S. hog farms and their food products.

Bill Mann of the Motley Fool reported that last fall, shortly before Bob Graham dropped out of the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination, “I received an email from Graham’s campaign urging me to sign a petition to call for the Justice Department to block Smithfield Foods’ proposed purchase of Farmland Industries’ pork processing facilities. The argument is that the merger puts ‘family farmers at risk by taking power from independent producers and put[ting] it in the hands of CEOs.'”

The Graham effort is nothing new. A ban on packer ownership of hogs was considered during negotiations over the 2002 Farm Bill. And in January 2003, according to economist John Skorburg, author of a new Heartland Policy Study on packer ownership of livestock, “Bill S27 was introduced in the U.S. Senate to amend the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 to make it unlawful for a packer to own, feed, or control livestock more than seven business days before slaughter.”

“This bill is intended to level the playing field between concentrated packers and small and medium-sized producers,” said S27 cosponsor Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming).

Efforts to ban vertical integration of hog farming have been pursued not only at the national level, but at the state level as well. Nine states have some form of legislation restricting packer ownership of livestock. The debate over vertical integration has been particularly contentious in Iowa, the nation’s leading hog-producing state, where the legislature passed a ban on packer ownership that was struck down by a federal court in January 2003 as unconstitutional.

Environmental Impact

The vertical integration debate has important implications for environmental as well as agricultural policy.

Although the link between open-air hog waste lagoons and environmental and human health concerns is anecdotal at best, the drumbeat for more stringent environment standards is growing louder in Congress and state legislatures. Alternatives exist, but they are expensive. Some family farms will be able to afford them, but many will not.

Modern large-scale hog farms–a type of livestock operation technically known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs–are better positioned to take advantage of new, more expensive waste treatment technologies. Noted the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in a February 2003 report, “If alternative or innovative manure management technologies are required to comply with more stringent regulation, large and independent operations are in a much better position than small and contract grower operations to make the necessary capital improvements.”

There appears to be some evidence to support the USDA’s position. Arlan DeBlieck, a researcher for the Public Interest Institute in Pleasantville, Iowa, reports, “The heaviest hog population in the country is in Duplin County, North Carolina. It has experienced a 500 percent growth rate in hog numbers since 1980. Yet according to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, there has been no change in water quality. Research is showing size [of hog farming operations] and technology may be reducing, not increasing, the risks to society.”

“Corporatization, consolidation, and vertical integration are major trends in the pork and beef industries,” says Skorburg. Those trends are being driven, he reports, by “market forces that include low profit margins, foreign competition, the need for better quality control, and better risk management.”

In addition to the economic advantages offered by packer ownership, emerging environmental advantages suggest packer ownership will continue in the industry … provided governments can avoid interfering with the trend.

Which brings us back, full circle, to the central issues regarding hog farms and the environment:

  • Do the open-air lagoons of today’s hog farms cause significant damage to the environment or risks to human health? The evidence is mixed, with anecdotal reports of negative effects but little if any scientific or medical evidence to support those claims.
  • Are alternatives to open-air lagoons available? Yes, but they are costly. “Ridiculously expensive,” according to Brandon Howard, the owner of a North Carolina family hog farm. “You couldn’t turn enough pigs to justify the expense of the system.”
  • Can a solution emerge? Without a doubt … if elected officials allow farmers, consumers, and other stakeholders to determine what combination of corporate and family farms best balances the economic, environmental, and health issues raised by the industry.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

See “Hog Farms and the Environment: An Investigative Series (part 1)”, Environment & Climate News, December 2003.

“Hog Farms and the Environment: Alternatives to Lagoons,” Environment & Climate News, January 2004.

“Economic and Structural Relationships in U.S. Hog Production,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, February 2003.

John Skorburg,”Packer Ownership of Hogs: Economic and Political Ramifications,” Heartland Policy Study No. 103, December 2003,