It's common knowledge that academic research is often funded by corporations and tainted by industry interests, from the food industry to pesticide makers alike. Big agriculture is also among those with a heavy hand in academia, working to cover up the polluting practices of its concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
The late Steve Wing, a researcher with the University of North Carolina, a state that's the second largest pork producer in the U.S. and home to numerous, densely-packed hog CAFOs, is just one example. Wing worked on research such as a 2015 study that tracked fecal waste from pigs in surface water near hog CAFOs.
Not surprisingly, he found surface waters near and downstream of hog CAFOs to be high in counts of fecal bacteria with "overall poor sanitary quality."1 When the North Carolina Pork Council heard about Wing's research looking into hog CAFOs and health, they filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to see the results.
Wing was reluctant to hand it over, as it contained information about community members who stood to lose their jobs if their identities were uncovered by the industry, The Guardian reported.2 The university forced him to hand it over nonetheless, suggesting he could be arrested otherwise.
Wing succeeded in having the records redacted before turning them over, and the industry continued to harass him about it until he died the next year.
Pig Industry Puts Pressure on Academia
Wing's story isn't unique, unfortunately, and The Guardian highlighted a number of examples where the industry put pressure on academia to further its own agenda:3
"The levers of power at play can seem anecdotal — a late-night phone call here, a missed professional opportunity there. But interviews with researchers across the U.S. revealed stories of industry pressure on individuals, university deans and state legislatures to follow an agenda that prioritizes business over human health and the environment."
The U.S. government has encouraged universities to partner with the private sector when it comes to research, for example, and it's known that the Iowa Farm Bureau and the Iowa Pork Council contribute financially to universities in the state, although the details of private-sector funding to universities isn't available to the public.
From scholarship opportunities to direct contributions, agribusiness influence can be felt at both Iowa State University and the University of Iowa, according to researchers there.
"And then there are the politically influential businessmen Charles and David Koch, intensely pro-free market billionaires … who owe their immense fortunes in part to manufacturing fertilizer," The Guardian reported. "In 2017, the Koch Foundation announced a donation of nearly $1.7 million to Iowa State University for an economics program."4
Such contributions aren't supposed to influence the university's research, but the reality is that it often does. A number of scenarios highlight the industry's attempts to quiet research that wasn't in its favor:5
• The Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State lost its funding into alternative methods of agriculture after 30 years; the state budget bill depriving the funds was signed by former governor Terry Branstad, who also received campaign funding from the Iowa Farm Bureau.
• Jim Merchant, the founding dean of the University of Iowa College of Public Health, conducted research that found a link between pig CAFOs and asthma in children. He planned to continue his research after he retired, but "was told he couldn't do research as an emeritus professor, even though it had been permitted in the past."
Merchant told The Guardian, "[T]he administrators and the faculty at these land-grant universities are heavily influenced, if not beholden, to agricultural interests."6
• A team of two dozen researchers reached a consensus on a study looking at CAFOs' impact on air quality, but the universities distanced themselves from the report.
• Researchers working on a study on the role of antibiotics in meat production asked to have their names withheld from the list of authors out of fear of retaliation from the industry.
Big Ag Undermines Academic Freedom
The common thread running through The Guardian's interviews was an unspoken rule that research painting the industry in an unfavorable light would not be tolerated and perhaps never published:7
"A number of researchers we spoke to across the country echoed similar concerns. Their experiences range from seeing their published work undermined in industry magazines to being discouraged from conducting certain research or feeling undermined by their own deans, and one person was even driven out of the field entirely.
Another researcher, who agreed to testify in a lawsuit that threatened to hold industry accountable for pollution, saw his position eliminated just before the court battle began. As soon as the plaintiffs lost, he was rehired."
Lack of transparency is another problem. Donors often give money to foundations instead of to the university itself, in part because foundations have a fiduciary responsibility to represent the donors' interest. Also important, money given to a foundation can be kept private in order to protect the donor's identity and does not become public record.8
It provides the perfect opportunity for industry corporations like Syngenta and others to pay for research on their behalf without receiving any public scrutiny for doing so.
The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, which is dedicated to improving higher education in North Carolina and the U.S., noted that many researchers refer to foundations as "slush funds" and "shadow corporations" "that too often operate in secrecy, despite spending taxpayers' money [although foundations are often supported by donations as well]."9
Universities and foundations often claim that protecting donors' privacy is key to keeping fundraising avenues open, but making such information public is in the public's interest.
Local governments are also known to turn a blind eye to the industry, allowing legal loopholes that allow pollution and animal cruelty to continue. The Chicago Tribune revealed that nearly half a million fish from 67 miles of rivers were killed by pig waste that had entered local waterways over a 10-year period.
The consequences for this massive environmental destruction were insignificant; only small penalties were enforced against multimillion-dollar corporations, many of them repeat offenders. Further, the investigation revealed that Illinois officials were not taking whistleblower allegations of animal cruelty seriously. According to the Chicago Tribune:10
"Inspectors dismissed one complaint, state files show, after simply telephoning executives to ask if it was true that their workers were beating pigs with metal bars.
Other states and local agencies have moved aggressively to address the problems caused by large hog confinements. Illinois has not, the Tribune found, even as consumers demand more humane treatment of livestock and stronger environmental protections."
North Carolina Becoming One Giant CAFO
North Carolina continues to make headlines for pollution caused by its heavy concentration of pig CAFOs, but the poultry industry is also a powerful force in the area. In fact, a report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Waterkeeper Alliance found there are now more than twice as many poultry CAFOs in the state as there are pig CAFOs.11
North Carolina put a moratorium on new pig CAFOs in 1997, but poultry CAFOs have continued to flourish. From 2008 to 2016, more than 60 new poultry CAFOs were added in North Carolina per year, with the rate doubling to 120 between 2016 and 2018.
"In total, between 2008 to 2018, 735 new industrial-scale poultry farms were added," EWG reported. Nearly one-quarter (23 percent) of the new poultry CAFOs were added in two counties that are already home to nearly half of the pig CAFOs in the state — Duplin and Sampson counties, which now house 82 million poultry and 4 million pigs.
As we've highlighted in our Polluting Pigs Series, the CAFO pigs living in the state produce copious amounts of waste — up to 10 times the amount of an average human12 — for which there is no easy, or environmentally friendly, disposal solution. But EWG found that chickens may be producing even more pollution than the pigs:13
"North Carolina's 4,700 poultry farms create 5 million tons of nutrient-laden poultry waste a year. That's on top of the 2,100 swine operations, which generate enough liquified waste to fill more than 15,000 Olympic-size swimming pools every year.
EWG's calculations show there is 4.8 times more nitrogen waste from poultry than from pigs and 4.1 times more phosphorous waste from poultry than from pigs."
Polluting Pigs and Chickens Threaten the Health of North Carolina Residents
In North Carolina, CAFO neighbors report increased headaches, runny noses, sore throats, coughing, diarrhea and burning eyes,14 while the odors alone are also associated with tension, depression and anger.
Children living near pig CAFOs also have a higher incidence of asthma,15 and these polluting CAFOs are found most often in areas with larger African-American, Latino and Native American populations. CAFOs in North Carolina are far less likely to appear in white communities, especially those low in poverty. "This spatial pattern is generally recognized as environmental racism," researchers wrote.16
A number of nuisance lawsuits have been filed against Murphy Brown LLC, a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer. In July 2018, for instance, a federal jury ruled that Smithfield should pay two neighbors living near a North Carolina Smithfield contractor's pig farm $25 million due to bad odors, flies and loud trucks caused by the CAFO.17
In June 2018, however, North Carolina legislators passed a law restricting future nuisance lawsuits aimed at pig CAFOs. While those already filed will not be affected, future lawsuits will be nearly impossible for CAFO neighbors to file. Now with the growing number of poultry CAFOs in the state as well, residents' health may be further threatened.
EWG noted that North Carolina regulators must consider both types of agriculture in their future talks about the agricultural and environmental fate of the state, with its residents' health hanging in the balance:18
"The deluge of nutrient-saturated, biohazardous material churned out by North Carolina animal agriculture poses serious threats to public health. As such, the rampant growth in the state's poultry industry must be factored in when state regulators meet in the coming days to renew the anemic general permit governing swine animal feeding operations.
NC regulators are required under state law to consider the cumulative impact of similar operations — hogs and poultry — on the environment because toxic runoff from both poultry and swine operations pollute the very same water bodies."
Grass Fed Heritage Pork Is the Only Pork You Should Eat
At one time, all pigs raised on U.S. family farms were heritage pigs, accustomed to roaming on pasture and in forests. The pigs don't take well to confinement conditions, however, and were soon replaced by commercial pigs bred to grow fast and tolerate crowding.
Whereas commercial pigs reach market weight in about six months, heritage pigs take about a year to do so. They're raised by a number of small farms, which typically sell the meat through farmers markets, food co-ops and occasionally to restaurants or niche markets.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) doesn't define heritage breeds of pork, but the Livestock Conservancy defines them as heritage breeds if they have a long history in the U.S., are of noncommercial stock, thrive outdoors and on pasture and are purebred animals of their breed, according to Civil Eats.19
If you choose to eat pork, I encourage you to avoid CAFO meats and instead either buy your meat direct from a trusted grass fed farm raising heritage breeds or look for the American Grassfed Association (AGA) logo, a much-needed grass fed standards and certification for American-grown grass fed meat and dairy.20
The AGA standard allows for greater transparency and conformity21 and is intended to ensure the humane treatment of animals and meet consumer expectations about grass fed meat and dairy, while being feasible for small farmers to achieve.
The AGA pastured pork standards include a forage-based diet derived from pasture, animal health and welfare, no antibiotics and no added growth hormones. Because of the atrocious state of the CAFO pig industry, grass fed heritage pork is the only pork you should eat.