North Carolina Hogs in Ecuador?

I arrived on campus a few days late, halfway through my pack of antibiotics, and jetlagged the morning after my flight to Quito, Ecuador. Universidad de San Francisco de Quito welcomed me nonetheless with open arms.

As I navigated the well-manicured gardens and river that runs through the Cumbaya campus, I pulled off my mask to soak up the smells of a country foreign to me. I was there to study Environmental Anthropology – a subfield of anthropology that focuses on the relationship between humans and their environment. The class was entirely in Spanish, and heavily focused on the indigenous peoples of Ecuador and the oil exploitation of the Amazon rainforest, which we would be fortunate enough to visit later in the summer. I was looking forward to learning from an indigenous person, and better understanding her take on the colonial epidemic of oil harvesting in Amazonia.

I finally found the classroom, introduced myself, sat down, and borrowed a pen and a sheet of paper from a better prepared peer. You can imagine my surprise when I looked up at the subject of our study for the afternoon. Our professor’s PowerPoint was projected across the screen, and in big letters, read: EASTERN NORTH CAROLINA PIG FARMS.

I was born in Boone, North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of the high country. Since enrolling at UNC Chapel Hill, my roommates and I have made a few weekend road trips east to Morehead City, the Outer Banks, and Beaufort, NC. We ride across the flat, agricultural land, through cotton fields and soy and corn and tobacco, blasting Mamma Mia and throwing our hands and hair out the windows. Then, all at once, we smell it. We retract our limbs and our excitement, roll the windows up, and switch to a podcast.

In the 1980s and 90s, the North Carolina economy experienced a quick shift from tobacco and cotton farming to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). North Carolina ranks second in pork production in the United States, housing 9 million pigs that mostly live indoors. Their waste is flushed out of the building and into storage cesspools. In eastern North Carolina, hog farmers and pork producers refer to the smell that hangs in the air as “the smell of money,” while others claim it smells like “a body that’s been decomposing for a month.” Lagoons, cesspools containing tens of billions of gallons of pig waste, border enclosed hog enclosures. Feed crops like corn and soy growing nearby receive a periodic shower of manure that is projected over the fields, and sometimes the whole neighborhood, to fertilize agriculture operations.

The impacts of this phenomenon are well-documented, including the Rachel Carson Council’s early, groundbreaking report, Pork and Pollution. Residents have experienced water source poisonings and quickly falling property values, as well as a myriad of health issues. Children that grow up here have more frequent rates of asthma as well as eye, nose, and throat irritation. These adverse effects fall disproportionately on black and brown communities, as people of color have historically been discriminated against and barred from accumulating generational wealth.

Increased meat demand and intake has been linked to environmental effects like greenhouse gas emissions and methane production. As the atmosphere warms and the climate changes with it, these eastern lowlands are increasingly vulnerable to flooding. Hurricanes on North Carolina’s coast are getting more severe and less predictable, and bring in floodwaters that can inundate and flood these lagoons, causing the hog waste to leak into and contaminate the well water supply. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit North Carolina, flooding hog waste lagoons and contaminating the water supply, sparking a renewed moratorium on “lagoon-farms.”

For the past two decades, North Carolina legislation has been under a constant tug of war between hog lobbyists and their Smithfield affiliates and local communities affected by this catastrophic business practice. Already, a new farm bill is proposing changes to hog farm rules that might allow farmers to vent more methane gas from waste pits. The measure boosts the penalty for waste spillage on state roadways, but allows venting and flaring, which harms the climate by interfering with atmospheric ozone formation.

Despite the bleak outlook on hog farming legislation, environmental justice initiatives have not given up the fight. The North Carolina Environmental Justice Network is grassroots, people of color-led community that has organized and supports low-income communities, people of color, and others seeking environmental, racial and social injustice. They host community building events and work to inform and support democratic participation to uplift the voices of those who call this region home.

It took a semester on another continent to draw my attention to how severe this issue really is on a global scale. I encourage you to investigate environmental justice issues in your region, via the Rachel Carson Council, EPA or grassroots organizations. Get involved by donating time and/or resources. There can never be too many voices in the fight against climate change, and to protect landscapes and the people indigenous to them. The goal is that those disproportionately impacted by these institutions will be able to breathe freely, drink clean water, and spend time outside without nausea and eye infections. Climate change will be slowed. And, less urgently, but hopefully down the line, we will be able to drive east to the coast with the windows down, singing all the way to the beach.

RCC Presidential Fellow — Molly Herring — University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

RCC Presidential Fellow Molly Herring is a senior at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill pursuing a double major in Biology and Global Studies with a minor in Creative Nonfiction. Molly was born in the North Carolina Appalachian Mountains and raised between Richmond and the beaches of Sandbridge, Virginia, but has journaled from the kitchen tables and living room floors of host families all over the world. She has been published in Oceanographic Magazine, Coastal Review, The Marine Diaries, and Cellar Door.