The Problem with Pigs

Published August 1, 1999

Hog production has been targeted by anti-agriculture environmental groups as a profound threat to the environment. The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), an advocacy group best-known for its opposition to pesticides, has even launched a “North Carolina Poop Counter” on the Internet to keep a running tally of the pounds of hog manure discharged in the state, and its phosphorous content. North Carolina is the nation’s second largest hog-producing state.

A survey conducted in March by Lake Snell Perry & Associates found that 80 percent of voters surveyed “favor creating tougher, uniform standards to limit the air and water pollution from factory farms.” The poll was commissioned by ten anti-farm organizations, including Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club, the Conservation Council of North Carolina, and Ralph Nader’s U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

A Porcine Threat?

According to EDF, the “concentration of hogs in eastern North Carolina increases the threats to human health and the environment.” The group claims that “the disposal of huge amounts of hog waste is dramatically increasing the nutrient pollution” in the region’s surface waters.

According to Carol Browner, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), livestock waste is a “major source of water pollution.” According to the agency’s March 1998 report, “Strategy for Addressing Environmental and Public Health Impacts from Animal Feeding Operations,” agriculture is the single leading cause of impaired rivers, streams, and lakes, contributing up to 60 percent of the pollution in surveyed rivers and streams.

Or Junk Science?

Farm groups and independent scientific sources dispute much of the case against livestock waste. Observers note that, while hog production in the Black River watershed has increased 500 percent over the past 20 years, the Black River continues to carry an “excellent” rating from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Resources (DNER). Responding to the aforementioned EPA report, Richard Halpern, a former policy planning official from Rockingham County, Virginia, notes “The operative word is surveyed.”

Rockingham is the nation’s second-largest poultry producing county; Halpern specialized in water quality issues affecting the poultry industry. He is now an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues, where he’s followed closely the EPA’s efforts at reforming water quality standards that apply to livestock operations.

Halpern notes that only 17 percent of the nation’s river miles have been surveyed, and of that 17 percent, just 37 percent–or 6.3 percent of the nation’s total river miles–are known to be impaired. Agriculture is estimated to be responsible for 60 percent of that impairment, with animal feeding operations of all kinds–including dairy, beef feedlots, poultry, and swine–estimated by EPA to “adversely impact 16 percent of those waters.”

“In other words,” Halpern calculates, “livestock affects 16 percent of 60 percent of 37 percent of 17 percent of the nation’s rivers and streams. In the end, that’s less than 1 percent total.”

The EPA report suffers from a bad case of shoddy data, says Leonard Gianessi, a water quality scientist and the developer of the water quality modeling method used to measure feedlot and confinement livestock waste. He says the model’s assumption were “very crude” a decade-and-a-half ago. “The really ridiculous part is that these numbers get encoded in all of these resource assessments as though the model is really accurate. Fifteen years later, and the (government) is still using these numbers. They weren’t that good to begin with,” according to Gianessi.

Congress Gets Involved

In Congress, a bipartisan group of farm state representatives has written EPA Administrator Browner and U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, expressing their reservations about many of the assumptions in the EPA’s livestock waste report. Echoing Gianessi’s concerns, the congressmen also challenge a number of the agency’s recommendations.

“Currently much of the information and statistics on water quality in the U.S. are incomplete and/or so dated that they can no longer be considered accurate,” they write. “States are presently working to address (livestock) issues, and the EPA and USDA should give these efforts a chance to work before additional regulations are promulgated.”

Anti-livestock Activity in the States

The livestock waste controversy is no less heated at the state level. In Maryland, for example, legislation controlling the use of poultry manure as fertilizer cleared the legislature and was signed into law based on press reports linking the toxic microbe Pfiesteria Piscicida to nutrient pollution from poultry production. Yet the governor’s “Blue Ribbon Citizens’ Pfiesteria Action Commission,” after studying the existing scientific research, reported that there is no “demonstrable cause and effect linkage between farm runoff and Pfiesteria.” The Commission also noted that these types of “toxic outbreaks can occur even if nutrient concentrations are relatively low.”

In March of last year, South Dakota legislators appropriated $750,000 for an environmental livestock cleanup fund within the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The act, passed unanimously in the Senate and by a 58-11 vote in the House, also prohibits “the discharge of manure and other materials or wastes associated with livestock.”

In November, South Dakota voters approved a constitutional amendment–widely known to be aimed at corporate hog farms–that not only prohibits corporations from owning farmland in South Dakota, but also ends the practice of companies contracting with farmers to raise crops or livestock on their behalf. Seven states have laws aimed at restricting corporate involvement in farming, but only Nebraska has joined South Dakota in writing a constitutional ban.

In Iowa–the country’s number one pork producer–livestock operators are presumed by law not to be a nuisance. In 1998, the state legislature passed a bill that preempts county officials from regulating animal feeding operations.

Hope in Technology

A recent scientific breakthrough in Canada may reshape the debate over livestock waste and water quality.

Reuters reports that scientists at the University of Guelph in Ontario have developed a strain of pigs that has the potential to produce manure 20 to 50 percent lower in phosphorous content. Phosphorous is one of the nutrients present in livestock manure which, along with nitrogen, has been blamed by environmental groups and some policy makers as a threat to water quality in the U.S. and Canada.

According to the Reuters story, three Yorkshire pigs–individually named after famous hockey stars, including the recently retired Wayne Gretzky–have been born to surrogate sows. Collectively, the new porcine strain is called the Enviropig, and each of their cells’ nuclei includes DNA from mice and bacteria that regulate the phosphorous in their waste.

The genetic engineering research at the University of Guelph, funded by the Ontario Pork Council, is considered to be the first using biotechnology to genetically engineer animals to solve environmental problems. Coupled with other efforts underway to reduce the phosphorous content in feed grains, these technology breakthroughs could indeed cast the livestock waste debate in a new light.

If nutrients such as phosphorous are reduced even before being excreted in livestock manure, the problem with pigs–to the extent a problem exists at all–will largely disappear. Anti-agriculture groups such as EDF will have to search for a new target.

Dave Juday is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Global Food Issues.