MORRIS: Funding a fecal flood

Julian and Charlotte Savage, who live in my home state of North Carolina, are in deep, deep shit, and you and I are unknowingly paying to put them there.

The story of the elderly couple, whose farmland borders a factory farm “sprayfield” designed to absorb the feces of some 50,000 hogs, was first told by reporter Jeff Tietz in Rolling Stone. Julian’s family farmed their land, raising tobacco, corn, wheat, turkeys and chickens, for a century. Now they try not to leave their house.

In North Carolina, hogs produce more fecal waste than the state’s 9.6 million people. Yet while human waste must be carefully treated, hog waste is simply poured into pits and sprayed across fields.

“Manure” doesn’t do justice to the slew of toxic poisons in hog waste lagoons, which include ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, nitrates, heavy metals, carbon dioxide, hundreds of pathogens such as salmonella and cryptosporidium and an increasing number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The Savages say they have observed hog waste flow straight into the creek behind their home. The nitrogen in the air keeps the trees in their yard a bright green. Once, during a flood, pig feces 6 inches deep pooled around their house. It took three weeks of digging trenches to get rid of it, but there is still no escaping the smell. Struggling to speak due to his pollution-clogged lungs, Julian cried as he described this to Tietz.

Federal and state governments should act to halt this corporate pollution, but instead, they are subsidizing it. Factory hog farms receive of a cornucopia of public subsidies. These include grants, cost-share for capital construction, research funding, tax credits and public money to underwrite the industry’s expansion, often in name of “pollution control,” according to Martha Noble, a policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

The Savages represent the thousands of people whose lives, communities and health have been devastated by the pollution caused by these so-called farms. Modern hog farms, known as Confined Area Feeding Operations (CAFOs), consist of giant warehouses full of tens of thousands of hogs that live in unspeakably miserable conditions.

There, the hogs’ excrement is collected through concrete slats and pooled in “manure lagoons”  — multiple-acre, open-air trenches. Their pernicious fumes suffocate the lungs of neighbors and their chemicals ooze in to the well water, sickening residents, killing fish and fouling some of America’s most precious lands and rivers.

Not only do Americans subsidize these farms, we also pay for their damage control. Taxpayers fork over more than $7 billion annually to bankroll and clean up after CAFOs and $4.1 billion over a series of years to deal with leaking manure lagoons, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Instead of being required to pay for the pollution they inflict, the hog farm industry benefits from what is essentially a “pay the polluter” scheme — a consequence of powerful lobbying industries — in which the bigger the polluter, the more likely they are to receive public funding, writes Noble in her essay in “CAFO: The Tragedy of Industrial Animal Factories.”

These animal factories are profitable only because they externalize the costs of controlling waste onto the American public.

Smaller, sustainable producers, who alternate crops and livestock to sustain soil nutrients and minimize pollution, have to compete with these government-subsidized factory farms for customers. It’s no wonder the handful of ruthless monopolies that dominate the industry, such as Smithfield, just keep expanding.

This problem is not restricted to rural areas. The incredible disregard for protecting us that our politicians have shown by kowtowing to industry lobbyists is alarming and a betrayal of our public trust.

We don’t all live next to factory farms, but this problem affects us all. When the government eventually passes the next farm bill, which is currently stuck in Congress, it should be a priority to get us out of it.

 Viveca Morris is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at viveca.morris@yale.edu .

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