Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

From Pigsties to Hog Heaven?

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

From Pigsties to Hog Heaven?

Article excerpt

In the continuing transformation of U.S. agriculture, North Carolina find itself on the leading edge of change. Between 1989 and 1998, the number of hogs in the state's pork industry soared from about 2 million to nearly 11 million, according to the state health director's office. In 1997, public concerns over concentrated hog populations and their environmental consequences brought about a moratorium on new hog farms. The industry consolidated into fewer large operations with high animal densities, which critics label "hog factories."

In some places, large waste lagoons at these facilities--some covering more than an acre--bring complaints of sickening odors and groundwater risks [see EHP 107:A154-A157 (1999)]. The lagoons and the spraying of liquid effluent on crop fields have been standard methods for disposing of pig excrement. Now the state has engaged private and public resources in a rapid search for better ways to handle hog waste.

The process for testing new technologies emerged after Hurricane Floyd struck in September 1999. Flooding caused by Floyd created widespread concerns over threats to public health from overloaded waste lagoons in eastern North Carolina. In the hurricane's wake, then--state attorney general Mike Easley approached the pork industry for help in solving the problem of hog waste. In July 2000, the state reached an agreement with Smithfield Foods, the state's largest pork producer. According to Easley, the agreement balances the interests of economic health and environmental concerns. "We do not have to choose between a clean environment and a healthy economy," Easley said of the agreement at the time. "We must have both, and this agreement proves that we can have both."

The agreement has the effect of legal contract. It requires Smithfield Foods and its subsidiaries (representing about 70% of the state's hog industry) to pay $15 million to fund research and testing of what the agreement calls "environmentally superior technologies." The agreement stipulates a schedule of two years for research and verification, with a report containing recommendations due in July 2002. Smithfield-affiliated farmers then have three years to convert their facilities to the recommended technologies. In addition, the agreement requires Smithfield to pay $50 million for environmental improvements such as mapping and closing abandoned waste lagoons in the eastern half of the state. The company will also identify wetlands and plan for their protection, and play a leading role in a plan for improving water quality in the region.

The agreement with Smithfield Foods spells out the role of a technology review panel, composed of a wide range of stakeholders, to advise the technology selection process. The process technology identification and testing is being Coordinated by Mike Williams, director of the Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Williams assembled a panel that in addition to industry representatives and environmental groups, includes animal waste management experts, official from the North Carolina Department of' Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), a business consultant from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and an official representative from one of the countries affected by the hog industry.

In response to request for proposal, Williams, received 97 proposals for new technologies. A first round of five technologies got the green light for on-farm testing in February 2001. Most of the technologies are already being studied at the Animal and Poultry Waste Management Center. North Carolina State University has a Web site these technology evaluations at waste_mgt/apwmc/te.html.

The panel conducted its review of the final proposals after a first-round screening guided by a more conventional anonymous peer review. The panelists approached their work from a range of different perspectives. …

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