In this chapter of Eating Animals, Foer pulls back the curtain to reveal the end product (literally) of the factory farming system: shit. Boatloads of shit. Communities surrounded by shit. Landscapes overrun by shit. Shit in the air, shit in the water, shit in the food. Foer recounts the time in 1995 when 20 million gallons of liquid toxic hog shit spilled (or was dumped) into the New River in North Carolina, courtesy of Smithfield Foods (the nations largest pork “producer”). The environmental devastation that occurred as a result was twice as bad as the Exxon Valdez oil spill six years earlier. But no one remembers it. One might be tempted to write it off as an unfortunate accident except that, within the next year, Smithfield was penalized for seven thousand additional violations of the Clean Water Act.
To help us visualize the amount of animal waste produced and mismanaged by Smithfield operations alone, Foer offers this scenario: “Imagine if, instead of a massive waste-treatment infrastructure that we take for granted in modern cities, every man, woman and child in every city and town in all of California and all of Texas crapped and pissed in a huge open air pit for a day. Now imagine that they don’t do this for just a day, but all year round, in perpetuity.” That’s eighty six trillion, eight hundred and twenty two billion pounds of shit annually. And that’s just one corporation. All told, the total amount of shit produced by all factory farms in this country is roughly 87,000 pounds per second.
This constant stream of shit is stored in massive “lagoons” adjacent to the factory farms more or less indefinitely as far as I can tell (I don’t know about you, but “lagoon” is not the first word I would choose to describe an open air sewer the size of a Las Vegas casino). Foer doesn’t describe what is supposed to happen with these tons of shit, possibly because there is no “supposed to,” because no one’s thought it through that far. I did read in a recent National Geographic article that farmers meet the “zero discharge” law that prohibits any nitrogen or phosphorous runoff from animal operations by “collecting pig waste in pits and lagoons until it can be treated or recycled as fertilizer.” They don’t say when they plan to treat it, or why, if they can’t treat it now, they imagine that the task will be easier a few years (and trillions of tons of shit) later.
What Foer does mention (and the National Geographic article does not) is that “When the football field sized cesspools are approaching overflowing, Smithfield, like others in the industry, spray the liquefied manure onto fields. Or sometimes they simply spray it straight up in the air, a geyser of shit wafting fine fecal mists that create swirling gases capable of causing severe neurological damage.” In case anyone is thinking that spraying raw sewage onto a field is the same thing as recycling it for fertilizer, here's a list of substances found in untreated hog feces, (lifted from an eye-opening article by Jeff Tietz of Rolling Stone that should be essential reading for everyone in this country): ammonia, methane, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, cyanide, phosphorous, nitrates, heavy metals, salmonella, cryptosporidium, streptococci and giardia. This ain’t your backyard compost.
The problem of pig shit is raised by National Geographic not as an expose on the massive ecological damage done by these factory farms, or the damage to the health and property values of surrounding communities, but rather to celebrate the engineering of a new breed of pig. Essentially, pigs are incapable of processing the type of phosphorous found in corn, which is their primary feed in factory farms because it’s cheap. As a result, high amounts of phosphorous are excreted in their urine and feces, which makes its way into the water supply. Most farmers feed their pigs the supplement phytase, which is supposed to aid in the digestion of phosphorous. However, the enzyme is more effective if it’s created inside the pig itself, so scientists have spent more than a decade searching for an organism in which this enzyme naturally occurs. They finally found it in…drum roll please…the E. coli bacterium. So they injected a piece of the E. coli genome into a microscopic pig embryo to create an “Enviropig” capable of processing the phosphorous produced from corn which pigs weren’t meant to eat in the first place.
Is it just me, or is not eating pigs an easier, cheaper and less icky solution to the problem of massive pig shit pollution?