Commentary

The most optimistic editorial of the weekend

Let’s hope the Fayetteville Observer was correct over the weekend with its optimistic take on the big $50 million nuisance verdict against mega-hog processor, Smithfield Foods. This is from “Hog waste suits may bring change”:

“It was the first of dozens of lawsuits filed by neighbors of massive swine farms in North Carolina. We’ll know before long whether the initial finding will be an aberration or a trend. If it’s the latter, the pork industry is in for a rough ride.

But then, it’s not all that surprising. The industry is using waste-disposal techniques that are appropriate to the 19th century, not the 21st. Thousands of hogs are housed together in sheds and their waste flows out into open holding pits that are euphemistically called “lagoons.” The waste decomposes in those open cesspools and the liquid is later pumped out to farm fields, where it is sprayed over them. It’s an effective disposal technique but not a bit pleasant for the hog farms’ neighbors.

The farmers, who raise the swine under contract with big pork companies like Smithfield, don’t have any choice in how they dispose of the waste. It’s spelled out in their contracts. That’s why the bulk of last week’s jury award was against the Chinese-owned Smithfield’s hog-production division, and not against the individual farmer.

In truth, there are many better ways of getting rid of the waste, including some new techniques that make the effluent generate additional cash.”

After summarizing some of the promising new technologies that are on the drawing boards for hog waste disposal, the editorial concludes this way:

“Those solutions may be arriving just in time for the hog industry. And with more than 3.5 million hogs in just Sampson and Duplin counties alone, our corner of North Carolina can use the new technology more than most.

The nuisance suits against Smithfield and others are just now getting started and are likely to be in the courts — in trials and appeals — for some time to come. But if there are a few more big verdicts in favor of hog farm neighbors, it’s likely to accelerate the development of alternative hog-waste disposal techniques that will make everyone’s lives better — and better-smelling. In the long run, that’s the best outcome for everyone.”

Let’s hope fervently that the editorial is correct. Having seen many similar promises in the past go unfulfilled, however, it’s hard not to see the editorial as being rather naively optimistic. Add to this the many other horrors that are endemic to industrialized hog production and it’s hard not to conclude that the best solution might actually be for everyone to eat a lot less pork.

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