At a recent conference in Houston, I met the co-authors of the runaway best-seller Freakonomics. When I introduced myself, they exclaimed, “Oh! You’re the Pig Lady!” “Um, well, yes. I suppose so,” I replied with some reluctance.
It was by accident that I became an expert in things pig. In 2000, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. hired me as senior attorney for his New York-based environmental group, Waterkeeper Alliance. Shortly after I started the job, Kennedy asked me to launch a national campaign to reform the hog industry. Until then, I had never considered the way America raises its pigs to be a major environmental crisis, let alone a pressing national concern. That quickly changed.
I began visiting areas with a lot of industrialized pig farming, starting in Missouri. A group of rural residents, mostly farmers, brought me to a small town in the northeastern part of the state. They showed me row upon row of windowless metal building looking like giant warehouses. Behind the buildings were large brown ponds of liquefied manure. Chain link fences ringed the facilities. No animals or people were anywhere to be seen. They seemed utterly lifeless.
Yet every building contained over a thousand live pigs, each of which would be born and spend every day and night of its life on the straw-less concrete floors of these crowded buildings.
In just a few short years, a quiet and harmonious farming community of traditional farmers had become overrun with industrial hog buildings all owned by a single out-of-state agribusiness corporation. The town had fewer than 2,000 human residents but now housed about 72,000 hogs.
One of the farmers had organized his neighbors to regularly test the local streams’ water quality. Their sampling showed that once the hog buildings began pumping out a steady stream of liquefied manure, water pollution – especially nitrogen, phosphorous, and pathogens — rose sharply and steadily. Despite making state and federal officials aware of these findings, the company was just slapped on the wrist and kept doing business as it always had.
On a day-to-day basis, the noxious stench emanating from the confinement operations was the residents’ chief concern. We stopped at the home of a woman in her eighties. She had lived in the same house for more than half a century. Now it was within sight of a cluster of hog confinement buildings. She served us lemonade in her living room as she talked of how the hog facilities had forced unwelcome changes in her daily life. “I can’t hang my laundry outside anymore, because it will smell like hog manure,” she relayed with a sigh. Many days, she said, the odor was too strong to even sit outside. Some times in the middle of the night the stench would rouse her from her sleep.
My next trip was to North Carolina, the nation’s number two hog producing state. (Iowa has occupied the number one position for over one hundred years). It would be the first of many visits in which my Waterkeeper colleague, Rick Dove, would take me on patrol by pick-up truck, by boat, and by airplane. Rick, who is a retired colonel of the Marine Corps, had already spent years documenting hundreds of cases of water and air pollution by hog confinement operations. His photos, videos, and water sampling documented overflowing and breached manure lagoons, water cannons shooting liquefied manure into streams, and manure being deliberately dumped onto frozen ground, guaranteeing it would end up in streams.
Animal confinement facilities (including those raising chickens and turkeys) so densely cover eastern North Carolina that when we patrolled by air, we could see over one hundred operations in a single birds-eye-view. The facilities were nearly identical to Missouri’s: big metal buildings, brown ponds of liquefied manure, chain link fences, and signs with red lettering that that read: “KEEP OUT!” I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could consider these operations “farms.”
In the decades that Rick had lived in North Carolina, he had seen its streams and rivers transformed. When he arrived, the state had been home to crystal clear waterbodies that were wonderful places for swimming and playing, and generated healthy and abundant fish and crab populations. Rick loved boating and fishing so much himself that he and his wife settled directly on the Neuse River, with a dock jutting from their backyard. But he’d seen the waters degraded into places that frequently required Health Department “No Swimming!” signs and where the fish often had open bleeding sores. Water scientists and public health officials had connected it all to the state’s burgeoning animal confinement industry.
As I witnessed how confinement hog operations were damaging lives and devastating the natural environment, I also began speaking with the experts. I interviewed aquatic biologists, and experts in animal welfare and public health. Universally, they told me they considered the industrialized way of raising pigs plagued with problems.
I learned that over 90 percent of pigs in raised in confinement were continually administered antibiotics in their daily water or feed. (Last year, this was quantified by the federal Food and Drug Administration, which reported that over 80 percent of all antibiotics used in this country every year are in animal feeds). This is done both to trigger faster growth and to keep the animals alive in intensely crowded conditions. But using antibiotics in this manner has been strongly linked to the rise of antibiotic resistant diseases in both humans and animals, which is such a cause for concern that the American Medical Association, American Public Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and World Health Organization have all called for a ban on the practice. The European Union did it years ago.
Animal welfare experts told me of two primary concerns. All of them pointed first to the extreme deprivation of the breeding females, the sows. In the United States, the majority of sows spend most of their lives in metal crates: first, in gestation crates (during their pregnancies), which are so narrow that they cannot even turn around; then, (after their piglets are born), in slightly larger crates called farrowing crates, which prevent them from interacting with their piglets, except through metal bars. Sows’ bodies are often covered with sores from continual contact with metal bars; their bones are made brittle from being virtually immobilized for months at a time.
Dr. Bernard E. Rollin, Professor of Animal Sciences at Colorado State University, has written: “I can unhesitatingly affirm that sow stalls, or gestation crates, are the most egregious example of the application of industrial methods to animal production.”
Later, I toured several facilities with crated sows and saw all of this with my own eyes. The visits were depressing and haunting. But they were galvanizing, too; they made me realize I needed to spend my life working to change the way America raises its farm animals.
Sow crates have become widely recognized as unhealthful and cruel. Years ago, they were banned in the European Union. In the United States, the Humane Society and other animal protection groups have worked state by state to outlaw the crates. Eight US states now have bans. Over the past several years major restaurant chains and retailers – including MacDonald’s, Denny’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Safeway, and Kroger’s – have announced they intended to stop purchasing pork from operations using crates.
Researchers at Iowa State University have studied the economics and productivity of operations using crates compared with those that do not. They found that a well-run farm without crates will substantially outperform operations with crates, and that its costs average 11 percent lower.
Animal welfare experts also alerted me to the problem of the floors. This one took me longer to fully comprehend. Because industrial hog operations are all based on keeping large herds of pigs continually confined indoors, they all collect the urine and feces of the confined pigs, add water to it to make it more liquid (like toilets do), then store it in pits or ponds (so-called “lagoons”), and finally apply it to land. It’s easy to see how spending all of one’s time standing any lying on a hard surface would make any animal surly and sore. But what animal experts educated me on was the deprivation this means for pigs. You see, in nature, pigs spend as much as 15 hours a day rooting and foraging. Their highly curious minds (testing shows them to be as smart as dogs) become bored, anxious and depressed when they have nothing to investigate or manipulate day after day for their entire lives. Simply put, pigs confined to meat sheds with concrete floors are miserable.
Several months into my job working for Bobby Kennedy, I had toured a dozen hog confinement operations and seen hundreds from the road and air. Then, one day I met Paul Willis. Paul used no crates, no liquid manure lagoons, and he did not feed antibiotics to his animals. He raised his pigs on pasture, and in many ways he was raising animals as humans have for thousands of years. Yet, he was a pioneering a revolutionary attitude, a new approach, a renewed respect for wildlife, the natural environment, and the role of farms in community. Working with the Animal Welfare Institute and a company called Niman Ranch (founded and led by Bill Niman, who I would later marry!) they were building a network of independent farmers who were all following a set of protocols that required high animal welfare and careful land stewardship practices.
Over the years, I have been to Paul’s farm in Iowa numerous times, and each time I’ve been reminded what a joy it is to see animals living in a way that allows them to realize their instincts. Here’s how I described my first visit to the Willis farm in my book Righteous Porkchop:
Paul and I walked together through several meadows, which were dotted with small huts occupied by clusters of mothers and their young. Like cape buffalo on the African savannah, sows were moving slowly through the vegetation, grazing while surrounded by their piglet clans. For a long time I stood ankle deep in the green growth, watching the piglets running, rolling, and happily chasing each other through the field. … The farm seemed guided by a single principle: Let the pigs living in a way that respects a pig’s nature. When they have each other, good feed, fresh air, sunshine, and ample exercise, the rest generally takes care of itself.
People sometime wonder whether a nation can feed itself raising pigs this way. To that I say a couple of things. First, we have about 60 million pigs in this country right now, the same number of pigs that were here in 1900. There is no reason we can’t raise them this way if our public policies start encouraging the creation of smaller scale, grass based farming rather than industrial production. This would be much, much better for the natural environment while also employing far more people in high quality farm jobs.
Anyway, even if it turned out that Americans would have to eat less pork to be able to raise every pig this way, so be it. America should be a country that leads the world in humane treatment of farm animals, not lags behind. I think we should all adopt the slogan: “Eat less pork, eat better pork.”
Nicolette Hahn Niman is a lawyer and rancher. She is the author of Righteous Porkchop: Finding a Life and Good Food (HarperCollins, 2009), as well as several op-eds in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. She lives in Northern California with her son Miles, and her husband, Bill Niman, the founder of the natural meat companies Niman Ranch and BN RANCH.