Confinement Hogs & Environment -- Myth or Reality? (4 pgs)
Mon, 29 Dec 97 15:49:12 CST
Confinement Hogs Help the Environment -- Myth or Reality?
Dennis Avery, in his Dec. 7, 97 article in the Des Moines
Register, used the age old tactic of building a "straw man," in
this case a stereotypical hog farmer, and then proceeding to tear
it down. He creates the image of conventional production as
hogs wallowing around on muddy stream banks. Feed is scattered
on the ground around sloppy self-feeders. It's mid-winter and
only a few huts are scattered here and there to protect the hogs
from the driving wind, sleet, and snow. Now contrast this
image with a heated, air-conditioned hotel-like hog facility.
The waste is "flushed" and disappears into a disposal unit, just
like at a hotel. Nutritional needs are carefully monitored so
the hogs will clean their plates with no waste or mess. With
these two pictures in mind, which type of production would you
guess Mr. Avery is going to conclude is best for the environment
and for rural communities?
Let's take a look at the myths that result from this distortion
Myth: Confinement hog farms take less land from nature.
Avery continually pursues the fallacy of spatial separation as a
means of supporting his goal of an intensive, high-input
agriculture. His real concern is not that we have more space
for wildlife, but that we continue to concentrate agriculture in
the smallest space possible. Concentration maximizes the demand
for purchased inputs and marketing services, both of which must
be bought from the agribusiness sector. The real objective of
Avery's support for concentrated production is to maximize profit
opportunities of agribusiness firms.
Concentration takes less land nature only if: (1) we ignore the
space required to "effectively" produce inputs and dispose of
wastes "without" doing irreparable harm to the environment and
(2) we assume that environmental space can be effectively
separated -- isolating hog farms from wildlife and people.
How much land does it really take to produce a confinement hog?
I don't know and neither does anyone else. But, in general, the
farther be deviate from nature in our systems of production, the
more ecological harm we will do somewhere and the greater the
total "ecological space" needed somewhere to heal the wounds.
Is ecological space separable? No! The fundamental law of
ecology is that "you can't do just one thing." You may put
thousands of hogs in a building somewhere out of sight with a
high fence around it. But you can't contain the ecological,
economic, or social impacts within that fence. Spatial
separation only creates an "illusion" of ecological separation.
We share the "same" space with wildlife, and with each other,
whether we are willing to admit it or not. If we are to sustain
human life on earth, we must learn to live, work, and play while
sharing the "same" space with other forms of life. Spatial
interconnectivity is an ecological fact.
Myth: Big confinement hog farms protect our water quality.
Here Avery paints the picture of hogs wallowing in the stream on
the typical family hog farm to contrast it with his hotel-like
sanitary waste treatment scenario for the large-scale,
confinement production unit. No one can deny the existence of
water polluting family hog farms. But, neither can anyone any
longer deny the water quality risks associated with "real world,"
large-scale confinement hog operations. However, hogs wallowing
in streams are not typical of family hog farms. Even if it were,
there are economically viable family farm alternatives, such as
pasture rotation systems and hoop-house systems, which are
capable of effective hog waste handling without water pollution.
However, the supposed best of the high-tech confinement hog
operations have been responsible for major lagoon spills and
water pollution incidents over the past few years.
Water quality problems associated with large-scale, confinement
operations cannot be solved, because they are inherent within the
system. The problem is concentration of too much waste in too
few places. Any mistake or breakdown in the waste management
system results in ecological damage simply because of the large
quantities of waste involved. There is far more room for error
when hogs are scattered across the landscape, as they are on
small-scale feeding and pasture-based systems on family farms.
Nature is designed to absorb small shocks. The poison is in the
dose - in the level of concentration. Ask the water quality
experts in North Carolina if big, confinement hog operations
protect water quality. North Carolina recently enacted a
moratorium on further building of large-scale hog operations
because of environmental damage.
Myth: Confinement hogs produce less soil erosion.
Soil erosion is a consequence of poor management, regardless of
whether it occurs in livestock or cropping operations. Erosion
in livestock operations is a consequence of duration of impact
far more than intensity of impact. In fact, the rooting tendency
of hogs may be put to good use when managed effectively within
the context of a diversified, whole-farm system. Regardless of
any utility of rooting, hogs can be produced with minimal erosion
in well-managed hoop house or pasture-based hog operations. The
fact that soil erosion in confinement systems is out of sight
does not mean that it doesn't exist. Erosion in the fields where
the crops are gown to feed hogs quite likely far overshadows
whatever occurs in places where hogs are grown.
Myth: Confinement hogs take less feed.
Again, feed efficiency is far more a function of effectiveness of
management than of any particular systems of production. The
new large-scale confinement operations probably produce more pork
per pound of feed than does the average Midwest hog farm.
However, financial records of hog farmers collected by
Universities in the Midwest consistently show that the better
managed family-sized hog farms can produce hogs more efficiently,
overall, than can the large-scale hog factories.
The "average" feed costs may be slightly higher for family hog
farms, but an "average or better" managed family hog farm
certainly is "cost competitive" with the factory operations.
In addition, the production technologies that account for most of
the feed and reproduction efficiencies on the large-scale
operations may be adaptable to far smaller family operations.
The fundamental question seems to be: Why don't we help family
hog farmers become more efficient and remain competitive rather
than turning them into "hog factory workers?" We know that
family farms, with better-than-average managers and good
production technologies, can produce hog as efficiently as the
large operations. Why don't we help all hog farmers to do better
tomorrow than do the "average" hog farmers today?
Myth: Confinement hogs suffer lower death losses.
Here, the myth is mainly in the implication - the "needless
suffering" and loss of life that Avery attributes to pigs being
raised out-of-doors. Avery seems to assume that pigs are just
like people. They are not. Pigs can thrive in environments
other than confinement, if they are provided with the basic needs
of a pig - e.g. protection from the wind and precipitation and
plenty of bedding. Death loss might still be less in
confinement than outside, but surely Avery would not argue that
pigs would "prefer" confinement to a humane outside environment.
Quite possibly, human death rates are lower and "feed efficiency"
higher in human prisons, but does that mean people would prefer
being locked up in a small cell - like a hog in confinement?
The final myth that Mr. Avery puts forth in the Des Moines
Register article is that factory hog farms are good for Midwest
communities. It takes people, not just production, to support
viable rural communities. Factory hog farms employ fewer people
per hog produced. That's one of their principal economic
"advantages." In addition, the hog factory worker is likely to
have far less commitment to the local community that does the
family hog farmer -- even if many of today's hog farmers end up
as tomorrow's hog factory workers. A typical American dream of
today's factory workers is to someday own their business - to be
their own boss. Why take those who already have this American
dream, the family farmer, and force them to settle for something
The comparative advantages of the Midwest in hog production are
tied to the inherent strengths of relatively small-scale,
diversified, land-based family farming operations.
Industrialization, specialization, and mass production are
systems of the past -- not of the future. And they certainly are
not well suited for the rural Midwest. We already know that
industrialization pollutes the environment, degrades human
dignity and productive capacity, and alienates people from each
other in families, communities, and society in general. Why
should we want to industrialize rural America?
We need to be looking for solutions to the problems that won't
make the problems even worse. Why don't we explore the natural
comparative advantage of hogs as scavengers of wastes rather than
as consumers of grains? Why don't we explore the possibility of
local and regional food systems that would reconnect hog farmers
with their customers and reestablish trust between hog farmers
and their neighbors rather than building more walls between them?
Why don't we invest in programs that will help hog farmers build
their management capacities rather than expanding waste handling
capacities for factory hog farms? As long as we allow "the
problem" to be disguised as "the solution," we will never really
explore the many positive possibilities for a brighter future for
families on Midwest hog farms.
Co-coordinator, Sustainable Agriculture Extension Programs
University of Missouri
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