In a troubling development, China has launched a two-year, $1.3 billion takeover of the hog farming industry in North Carolina. With more than 2,000 large-scale hog farms, North Carolina is a hotbed for factory-scale hog farming, a practice that has devastating consequences for the environment. Hog excrement from these farms pollutes waterways, land, and air, causing severe damage to the surrounding ecosystem.
Over 200 of these hog farms are owned or operated by Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world. In 2013, Smithfield Foods was acquired by the WH Group, a Chinese pork conglomerate. However, this acquisition raised concerns not only about the safety of the food produced but also about the intentions of the Chinese government.
Investigations have revealed that the Chinese government has used nominally private companies as proxies for state power. The government has explicitly instructed Chinese companies to buy foreign food producers and farmland, and in a span of two years, the Chinese went from owning $81 million worth of American farmland to nearly $1.4 billion.
WH Group, now the owner of Smithfield Foods, receives guidance from the Chinese government because pork is seen as a national security issue in China. This raises further concerns about the company’s practices and its impact on the environment and public health.
One of the main reasons why Chinese-owned hog farms in North Carolina are so attractive is that it is 50 percent cheaper to raise hogs there than in China. This is due to lower pig-feed prices, larger farms, and lax business and environmental regulations in the United States. The Chinese are essentially offshoring their costly and harmful business practices to the U.S.
This takeover has not been without consequence. In 2019, 500 residents filed more than two dozen lawsuits against Smithfield Foods, claiming that the hog farms were making their lives unbearable. Five of these cases went to trial, and Smithfield Foods lost all of them. The juries unanimously concluded that there had been an unreasonable and substantial interference with the plaintiffs’ property, resulting in Smithfield Foods being ordered to pay $550 million in damages.
Living near hog farms also has a detrimental impact on public health. Studies have shown that people living near concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) have higher mortality rates, higher rates of infant mortality and low birth weight, and higher rates of diseases like anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and septicemia.
Furthermore, the massive amounts of hog waste produced by these farms pollute well water and surface water with harmful compounds, leading to fish kills and life-threatening illnesses in humans. The hog farms in North Carolina are primarily located in a coastal floodplain, which amplifies the risk of water pollution during storms.
The impact of this takeover is not only environmental but also social. The majority of residents living near hog farms in North Carolina are people of color and live in poverty. They are disproportionately affected by the pollution caused by these farms, highlighting the issue of environmental racism.
Unfortunately, the federal regulatory framework does little to address these concerns. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) primarily regulates the largest CAFOs, and the practice of spraying hog waste on fields is legal, even though it exposes nearby residents to fecal matter and poses significant health risks.
To make matters worse, North Carolina regulators have authorized Smithfield-owned CAFOs to convert their animal waste into biogas fuel without conducting a comprehensive impact analysis or including air and water mitigation requirements. This decision has prompted a Civil Rights Act complaint by the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) against the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) for failing to protect the surrounding communities from air and water pollution.
Overall, China’s stealth takeover of the hog farming industry in North Carolina has far-reaching consequences. It not only harms the environment, public health, and local communities but also raises questions about the ethics and intentions of foreign ownership of vital agricultural assets. Urgent action is needed to address these issues and protect the well-being of both the environment and the people living near these hog farms.