If I told you that this column involves delicious pork ribs, slow-smoked Boston pork butts and aromatic bacon and sausage right out of a cast-iron frying pan, I wouldn’t exactly be lying. But the reality is a lot less appetizing.
Back in the late 1990s, a series of environmental disasters in neighboring North Carolina devastated rivers in that state and posed major health threats to residents throughout its coastal plain. Large open-air lagoons storing animal waste from massive hog-raising operations either overflowed in heavy rain or failed outright, creating serious and sustained water-quality issues in that state.
In the aftermath, Georgia regulators adopted rules to prevent that nightmare from occurring here, primarily by limiting the size of industrial hog-feeding operations in this state. In the 14 years since their adoption, those rules have kept the state’s hog-growing industry on a manageable but still profitable scale.
However, time passes, memories fade and success brings temptation. In December, the Georgia Board of Natural Resources is scheduled to vote on rule changes that would significantly weaken measures designed to protect the state’s rivers, streams and air from pollution.
Under current rules, hog-feeding operations in Georgia are in effect limited to no more than 7,500 hogs weighing 55 pounds or more, or no more than 30,000 hogs weighing less than that amount. That’s a pretty big industrial-scale operation — although it is dwarfed by operations elsewhere — and unpleasant as it may be, it’s important to think through the potential impact.
Think about that many large hogs confined in a relatively small area, and think about the fact that a single large hog can produce four to five times as much waste in a day as a human being. Think about the fact that the standard technology for dealing with that hog waste is not to treat it as human waste is treated — that would be prohibitively expensive — but to store and treat it in large open-air lagoons and then later spray it onto fields where crops are grown.
When run well and monitored closely under normal conditions, those systems work well. The question is what happens when they are not run well, when they are not monitored closely or when conditions are not normal. For example, many of North Carolina’s problems developed when a rain-heavy hurricane hit, overwhelming lagoons and sending waste into streams and rivers.
In another example, a 2011 audit by the inspector general of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was harshly critical of both the EPA and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division for poor oversight of “concentrated animal-feeding operations,” or CAFOs. It warned that inspections were so lax that “there is a significant risk that Georgia’s CAFO program is failing to protect water quality” in the state.
Yet under proposed changes, the effective maximum size of hog-feeding operations in Georgia would increase from 7,500 large hogs to 12,500, or from 30,000 to 50,000 smaller hogs. That’s a capacity increase of 66 percent.
In a public hearing last month, Jeffrey Harvey of the Georgia Farm Bureau testified that such a rule change “would allow for a modest growth” in the size of Georgia hog operations. “We do not think that this rule change will accelerate hog production in the state,” Harvey said, instead arguing that it will allow “a small handful of operations” to expand so that “children of these farmers will be able to continue these operations.”
It’s not a question of the industry’s survival. Pork prices and profits are high — according to the magazine National Hog Farmer, “We could be looking at one of the best 12-month runs in industry history for profitability.” It’s just that Georgia operators understandably want to take advantage of it.
As a rule, however, larger operations mean fewer operations, and larger operations are less and less likely to be family run. Between 1990 and 2010, while total hog production rose, the number of hog-feeding operations fell by 75 percent nationally, from roughly 250,000 to roughly 60,000, and that consolidation continues.
Given those trends and the risks involved, it’s hard to understand why those charged with protecting Georgia’s environment would weaken regulations that have worked well to date.