American pigs and Chinese smog

Satellite captures the smog hiding coast of eastern China

Satellite captures smog hiding China’s eastern coast

China’s air pollution problems are very much in the news lately. “You can hear the person you are talking to, but not see him,” tweeted a resident of Harbin in northeast China last week.

The suffering of pigs raised on factory farms is another hot issue.

Who would have thought these issues could be related? Mark Bittman, the noted food journalist, for one. He pointed out that China’s purchase of Smithfield, the largest American producer of pork, will compound our pollution problems while inoculating China from the worst environmental impacts of commercial factory farms:

As is the case with 90 percent of the pork produced in the United States, almost all of Smithfield’s “farms” use now standard techniques, including large (average: 2,000 pigs) concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in which pigs are confined, fed with legal but problematic drugs and use enormous amounts of feed, water and energy while generating giant lagoons of manure.

The CAFOs stay in the U.S., and the pork feeds the Chinese. 

Larry Pope, Smithfield’s CEO is happy. The sale of his company, the largest one of an American company to a Chinese one, “provides enormous benefits … for American manufacturing and agriculture.” As usual in these cases, the claims of greater production and more jobs and exports purportedly justify the sale. But was it really beneficial? Kai Olson-Sawyer, a research and policy analyst at the Grace Communications Foundation doesn’t think so:

The CAFO system has major impacts on environmental and human health, rural communities and animal welfare. And basically, taxpayers pay for it all: we subsidize the production of cheap grain used as feed, and are ultimately stuck bearing the environmental, public health and socioeconomic costs of industrial livestock production.

Olson-Sawyer believes the sale was in essence a transfer of intellectual property and technology to the Chinese and especially a trade of land and “water for waste.” China’s water resources are limited, and a hog needs almost 600 gallons of water to produce a pound of meat. Water is also needed to grow the feed, and it is crucial for cleaning up the 1200 pounds of manure each hog produces in its lifetime. Although some of the manure is used for fertilizer, most of it pollutes the soil, air and water.

No one ever accused the Chinese of not being crafty or shrewd.

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