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Sustainable Swine Production: Analysis of Major Issues

By June Narber


Note: June recommends NOT eating any pork products.

We believe Hogs were never meant to be for human consumption. The following research paper was a required assignment for a graduate level sustainable development class I took in my graduate school studies at North Carolina State University. It addresses the main issues of hog farming in North Carolina; and it touches on many of the issues surrounding environmental concerns when it comes to hog farming. As it seemed appropriate, this paper is included here for reference. The true solution to the problem of hog farm management is to cease having hog farms and turning this land into something more productive, like grain and crop production land; and permitting hogs to return to their traditional function in the earth’s ecosystem: as nature’s garbage disposals and to foraging forest lands for roots and small insects. However, I do not believe the great creator God ever intended hog flesh to be used as food. There are just too many health concerns and environmental problems associated with the entire hog farming scenario.

June Narber

For 577 Dr. Mueller November 26, 1996

Decision Case: Sustainable Swine Production: Analysis of Major Issues

Introduction-The Swine Farm Scenario in North Carolina in Brief

In 1991-1995, the swine inventory in North Carolina rose from 2.7 million head to over 7.5 million head, an average annual growth rate of nearly 30%. This made North Carolina the second largest pork producer in the United States (Iowa being first). The number of farms producing the swine decreased and a limited number of producers began large scale hog farms, often called factory farms (Blue Ribbon Report). One 80,000 hog confinement facility generates as much waste as a city of 180,000 residents. The enormous man-made lagoons are built to dispose of hog waste; the hog waste can leak into groundwater and run off into streams. As a result, the water supply is contaminated and threatens fish and local wildlife. The overwhelming odor generated from the waste lagoons and the confinement facilities contaminates the air; As a result, nearby residents suffer nauseating stenches which induce physical illness, irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, and can cause property values to decline.

In addition to the physical problems generated by swine production, the legislation in North Carolina has had no safe guards to protect itself from this growing industry: in short, the laws protect large scale swine factory farms and treat them with the same rights as small farms. Legislation must be changed and new rules made to enforce limits on large scale swine growth. Large scale swine production in North Carolina harms the environment, effects social and economic situations, and harms agricultural interests. The following sections in this paper will analyze the situation in regard to these four areas: environmental, social, economical and agriculturally; and propose sustainable solutions to the problems. It will also attempt to answer the question is large scale swine operations sustainable in the long run? Sustainable practices can help alleviate the agricultural and environmental concerns, but the social and economic concerns are far more complex to address. I propose that a return to the traditional, self sustaining traditional swine farm is a good long-term sustainable solution to the current dilemma.

The Pork Industry and Swine Manure Management

Animal production is experiencing a rapid evolution, and the increasingly industrial character of animal production is being driven by technological innovations (Purvis and Outlaw, 1995) with simultaneously cost reduction (OTA 1991). Consequently, swine production activity has been profitable with annual returns of the capital invested up to 25% (Hurt, 1994). Most productivity enhancing technologies have little effect on the quantity or quality of manure per unit of animal produced. However, nowadays properties have higher number of animals (Hurt, 1994), with greater concentration of manure production. Thus, farms with great numbers of hogs often accompany capital investment in manure management and such adoption has frequently occurred in response to environmental compliance rules (Purvis and Outlaw, 1995).

Management of any animal manure requires techniques that minimize the thread to surface and ground water and air quality. These management systems should be efficient and cost effective as well. Although various methods of manure disposal are available, land application continues to be the most common method (Sutton et al., 1990). In regard to the possibility of using swine manure to provide a supply of nutrients to crops, pasture land, or forested areas: the maximum application rates are desirable, but must not cause toxicity to plants or to animals consuming the forage. There is uncertainty in estimating the quantity of nutrients in manure, and this can lead to over application (National Research Council, 1993). Another complicating factor is the mineralization rate of manure as it is important in determining the nutrient availability for crop use and potential leaching. Management of the manure is of most crucial importance, as most of the pollution problems associated with swine production comes from their waste products.

Factory Farms Compared with Traditional Small Swine Farms

In a Virginia study involving small swine farms compared with large swine operations (factory farms), it was found that with the traditional unit, there was a 10% increase in permanent jobs, a 20% larger increase in local retail sales, and a larger increase in local per income than factory farms. When large operations move into rural areas, small family farmers are squeezed out of business (FarmAid News). This is also the case in North Carolina, as demonstrated by the decreased number of swine farms in the state. The small farms are self-manageable: they raise their own corn to feed on average, 200 head of swine (raised outside in the fresh air and sunshine). The swine waste products (which are in incredibly smaller volumes compared to factory farm manure volume) are applied to the various crops grown on the small farm. Factory farms, in contrast, raise sometimes as many as 100,000 head of swine at a single site in confinement buildings, in which the swine never walk upon the earth or experience the sunshine and fresh air. Large scale confinement facilities contribute to the bad health of swine and its existence is a contributing factor as to why swine affluent volume is so high.

THE ENVIRONMENT: Lagoons and water and soil pollution

One of the major concerns in regard to the concentration of (and continually expanding) swine industry is the degradation of the environment’s quality. I regard environmental pollution as being the most critical of the concerns because it affects such a variety of our natural habitat, including water, soil, air, and as a result of these three areas, it effects humans, wildlife and vegetation. The high nitrate levels in swine waste can cause blue baby syndrome in human infants. Excessive nitrate intake has also been linked to a variety of cancers (Alternative Health). The wastes are leaking from the lagoons. In a 1993 study of eleven North Carolina lagoons that were at least seven years old, it was discovered that over half were leaking moderately to severely. It is estimated that half of the swine operations in the lower coastal plain of the state, are contributing to local contamination of the surface aquifer. In a 1993 study of wells around Northampton County hog farms, it was found levels of ammonia nitrogen-a byproduct of urine- jumped from a normal level of 2 parts per million to 18 (News and Observer). Three months later they jumped to 27, then 57, and within three months, up to 178 parts per million. The problem with existing lagoons is that they were not installed with protection against flooding or with an over-flow reserve area. Many also lack liners. Seepage of wastewater can enter groundwater in just 200 feet of the lagoon. Lagoons can be made more sustainable by making them larger and by putting filters in all of them.

The Soil

The soils in North Carolina are sandy and have a shallow water table, making them more vulnerable to groundwater pollution. As more and more hog affluent (wastes) are sprayed on crops as fertilizers, toxic levels develop: soil can not absorb all of the nitrogen and phosphorus. In a study involving coastal Bermuda grass, long term swine manure application led to an accumulation of nitrate in the subsoil and groundwater (King et el. 1990; Kanwar et al. 1995). The prospect for heavy metal accumulation (copper and zinc which are especially toxic to plants) is a major problem. An alternative practice involves planting of rotational crops such as Bermuda grass and then corn (which has a high uptake of nitrogen capacity). Another sustainable practice would be the use of swine affluent on forested areas where no food crops are grown. This way, toxic levels would not directly effect grazing animals or crops eaten by humans (a main reason this issue is of high relevance) On the other hand, they might offset the forest ecosystem. How can we know for sure what the results of introducing a high nitrate fertilizer into a new area without extensive tests being conducted? As the swine industry looks for alternative crops to use up the swine affluent, it is worth considering the prospect for disease outbreaks from accumulation of these wastes. In over fifteen sources referred to in the research for this paper, few addressed the potential for swine disease and parasites being transferred to humans through feces contact or from eating swine. If credible resources were available to support this theory, it could be a strong argument against sustainability of swine affluent being used at all as a fertilizer. One example is in a New Zealand incident, several dozen sheep died after grazing on swine affluent fertilized grassland.


Odor and Health

The odor generated from the swine business is of serious social consequence. There are more than 150 different gases that can be carried more than a mile or more by the wind (News and Observer). Besides smelling nauseating, these gases can endanger people’s health (the leading reason as to why I place this problem second to the environmental problems caused by swine production). Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S) is the most toxic gas associated with the decomposition of swine manure. It is believed to be responsible for most of the deaths of livestock and humans that have occurred around liquid manure storage pits. The gas at 150 ppm (parts per million) can have a deadening effect on the sense of smell making detection extremely difficult. In environmentally controlled swine units, a common level for this gas is 5 ppm. But during the first stages of stored manure agitation and pumping liquid manure, it can reach dangerous concentrations; levels of 200-300 ppm have been reported to exist within minutes after agitation begins. Levels can go as high as 1,500 ppm. Effects of H2S on humans include lung damage and storage in the lungs (Barker 1996). Other gases of concern include Ammonia, Carbon Dioxide and Methane. The major safety concern of methane is that it is highly flammable and can be explosive at levels ranging from 50,000 to 150,000 ppm (Barker 1996). Because methane is lighter than air, it tends to rise and accumulate near the highest stagnant parts of enclosed buildings and tightly closed manure storage pits. These gases can make the pigs sick as well as humans. A simple and sustainable solution to swine health in regard to the gas accumulation is to make all closed buildings to have open ventilation systems with the outside and to allow fresh air to flow through the building at all times. Reduction in swine volume so that the swine can roam outside part of the time, would help decrease accumulation of gases associated with enclosed building systems. Sustainable methods of controlling the swine odor problem via the waste products includes having the affluent carrying pipes to discharge below the surface; recycle and irrigation pumps in aerobic layers and precharged lagoons with half of the treatment volume.

It is believed that large factory farm owners have the right to produce as much pork as they desire, but the definition of liberty per our United States Constitution, states that one person’s liberty ends where another person’s liberty begins. Hence, we can conclude that hog farmers rights end where their production starts infringing on other people’s individual rights.

Biological management-A sustainable solution for environmental and odor problems

The newest technology created by Bion Industries could revolutionize the major problems associated with large scale swine production and render them sustainable. One of the aspects of this new system is manure is cycled through a wetland that has been designed and build specifically to remove nutrients. Instead of nutrients escaping into surface and groundwater, they are captured by microorganisms and chemical complexes. Then they are changed into a soil like substance called Biosoil. The water then can be reused or safely discharged into the environment. Barefoot Farms is the first system in North Carolina converting hog wastes into organic soil. A similar system has been used previously in Florida on Dairy farm productions with great success. Neighbors around the Barefoot farm agree that the smell has almost totally been eliminated with this new system. The sustainable results from this procedure include a proven environmentally safe way of disposing of toxic hog wastes, converting it into a soil like substance that can be used as an organic potting soil, or sprayed unto hard woods such as black walnut, sycamore, and sweet gum (Bion reports and flyers). Odors are almost entirely eliminated. The artificial wetland turns into a type of habitat for wildlife. Ammonia levels are also reduced in the swine containment houses. Economically, this Bion system results in a reduction of manure handling expenses. On the negative side, the system is expensive to install, ranging from $100,000 and upward to install on a new swine farm, and $200,00 and upward to build it on an existing farm.

Sustainable Swine Production: Humane Treatment of the Pigs

As we are dealing with the environmental concerns of the current swine production operation in North Carolina, we should also consider the seldom-discussed issue- of the treatment of swine. It is not logical that an enterprise can be considered sustainable without considering the welfare of the animals involved. Even though these swine are raised commercially to be slaughtered, sanitary environments should be maintained to insure their health and in interest of the future consumption of the meat products they will be turned into. In the following example from the United Kingdom, we can gather insight into a case example of inhumane treatment of swine.

A Closer Look at the Pig: Breeding Sows in the United Kingdom

Pigs are naturally intelligent and inquisitive social animals (as much as the family dog). Pigs originally lived in woodlands foraging for nuts, seeds, roots and grubs. They do not normally soil (release their urine or feces) in their bedding in their natural habitats. Lacking sweat glands, they will roll in mud to cool off when needed (Calvert 1995). In the UK, there are 800,000 breeding sows. All are raised in confinement buildings and never are allowed to roam outside, even when pregnant. They spend two-thirds of their life pregnant. Pigs are naturally selective in their mating, but under farm factory breeding guidelines, the sows are chained up to a stall or rack before being bred by the boar. This is believed to be painful to the sows and distressing as evident in their frantic attempts to escape from the given situation. During their pregnancy, sows are chained in stalls that are not much bigger than themselves (are not able to turn around) and stand on metal planks without any kind of bedding. Sows have an instinct to make a nest as they would if they were out in nature (usually comprised of straw, grass or leaves). Piglets are weaned prematurely at about 2-4 weeks, instead of the normal 12-14 weeks and moved into maturing houses, and the sow bred again almost immediately. These sow produce 4-7 litters of about 20 piglets each, per annual year. After about three years of this, the sow becomes exhausted and is sent to the slaughterhouse. A pig’s life span is greatly shortened, for in nature, they live usually would live 10-15 years. When being slaughtered, they are first stunned with an electric prod, and then their necks are slashed. Often the stun doesn’t last and the pig experiences the entire process.

An overlooked problem in large scale swine production is the infringement it has on certain religious beliefs of a small percentage of the population who regard swine flesh as an unclean meat and prohibited to be consumed in their religious beliefs (groups such as Judaism, Muslim, Church of God, 7th day, Seventh Day Adventists, United Church of God, Church of God Intl. Global Church of God et al.) Should such individuals have a say if a swine operation is to move into their back yard? As the law dictates at the current time, they do not have any say so. Spraying swine affluent in nearby crops, forests and so forth would directly violate their religious beliefs: as to consume any hog flesh or by product is regarded as unclean and a sin in the sight of God (Meredith 1996, Holy Bible, Koran, et al.) All people’s beliefs should be respected, even if they are against the accepted norm of society.


With the decrease of the economic contribution of tobacco to the North Carolina economy, large-scale swine production is looked upon as being an economic stabilizer in many parts of the state. However, this increasing business is creating massive pollution problems that will require large scale financing to clean up; presumably out of the tax payers’ pockets. It is estimated that the industry puts $1 billion back into the pockets of North Carolinians; but the real dollar figure would be much lower if one figured up how much it will cost to repair the environmental damage: such as river cleanup, soil contamination, lost fish populations and the health costs of neighbors. The Bion Industry biological management system could correct and prevent future problems of large-scale swine operations, but how many swine producers can afford to install this on their farms? It is not known how long the methane-powered generator on the eco-reactor (Bion) can last, or exactly how much it would cost to replace it. There also is a $10,000 a day fine for river pollution (News and Observer) from hog farms. Current legislation in NC allows these factory farms to pay below minimum wage to their workers; and increasing numbers of the swine production business, is being leased out to contract farmers. With contract farming, there is no guarantee of continued contracts with the large scale corporate companies, or any insurance against potential problems; in addition to the contract farmer having to bear all of the operating costs.

There is also a swine mortality rate of 3.6 million, then the cost of dealing with all of those dead carcasses. Current legislation states that dead swine must be buried at a minimum of three feet. Decomposing swine bodies exposed to the air brings up an entirely different set of problems in regard to health and disease concerns. Large-scale swine production eliminates the chance for small farmers to compete in the market, and as a result, contribute to the lost economic prospects of the traditional small farmer. To deal with the economic issue of making swine production sustainable is complex. Large-scale operations are the culprit behind the waste dilemma, odor, and most of the other issues of current public concern. To make legislation that would first, limit the size of swine farms, secondly, enforce clean and sanitary living condition for the swine (reducing health costs and disease potential) and finally, to enforce waste management technology that can reduce expulsion of wastes into the environment (reducing costs of cleanup of wastes) would be a first step toward sustainability.


Half of the land use in the United States is used to grow grain crops (corn, soybeans, and sorghum) for animal consumption. This contributes to soil erosion. One-third of our crop land is being eroded at levels that cannot sustain long-term soil productivity (Kreil 1991). Finding different crops for swine to eat, such as legumes, would help reduce the grain requirement, thus decreasing the level of soil erosion by some percentage. In combination with the grain crops needed to feed swine, there is pesticide and fertilizer pollution that also seeps into the groundwater.

As previously mentioned, fertilizing with swine affluent creates nitrogen buildup in the soil and

can lead to toxicity in crops and grasslands. The application of swine affluent can be managed as to increase the nitrogen losses. Hoff et al (1981) shows that if swine manure is applied to the surface of the soil when the day is very sunny and windy, the losses of N via ammonia volatilization is up to 48%, and in rainy years, denitrification losses can reach up to 200 kg of nitrogen per hectare per year. It is also sustainable not to apply swine affluent constantly to the same area year after year (leads to nitrogen and heavy metal build up).

Livestock feeds once were centered around forages and low cost feeds. The return to the small family farm could help change the current trend in soil erosion due to feed production for swine.

Conclusion: Getting Back To the Basics

It is my conclusion that the best long term solution for sustainable swine production is the reduction of the current monopoly that is present in North Carolina through legislation to slow its growth and eventually reduce its size and power over the industry; and to create tax breaks for small farmers to once again enter the swine market. In addition to this, a new focus can be integrated into small farmer’s agricultural strategy: to have a diversified farm that includes a variety of crops, open land that swine could freely roam upon. Recently imported Chinese hogs are more adapted to the cold because they have more hair, and have a greater ability to use forages and waste products in their diets (Kreil 1991). By diversifying crops, it adds flexibility in dealing with fluctuating farm prices and drought. Because pigs are massively produced for the meat market, the gene pool could perhaps benefit from more interbreeding with such pigs as the Chinese hog, increasing immunity and hardiness.

To have long-term sustainable agricultural practices, I deduce that by reducing the number of swine on a farm could enhance the farm’s productivity, as it would cease to be a meat-centered enterprise.

New technology has strong potential for discovering better ways of achieving sustainability, as well as creating genetically engineered crops that can thrive better under swine affluent fertilizers.

Genetic engineering offers producing favorable traits in swine. In the past 30 years, the daily liveweight of pigs has increased from 450 g to more than 800 g. Through genetic improvements (as well as better knowledge of best nutritional diet for swine), increased long-term productivity is the result of management practices that include breeding strategies (Tribe 1994).

By getting back to the basics, small farmers can once again thrive in North Carolina without

worrying about the big guys taking their business away or making it financially impossible to compete with them. It will take technology working along with legislation to manage this massively expanding industry in North Carolina in the coming years, in order to accomplish sustainable goals in correcting the various environmental, social, economical, and agricultural concerns in regard to swine production. Concentration should be on smaller and more variety, instead of larger and larger.


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Blue Ribbon Commission on Agricultural Waste, May 16, 1996, Report to the 1995 General Assembly of North Carolina, 1996 Regular Session, State Legislative Building, Raleigh, North Carolina.

Calvert, Sam, This Little Piggy. In The Vegetarian, Spring 1995. The Vegetarian Society, UK. Electronic edition.

Farm Aid News, Volume 3, Number 4, February 29, 1995. Electronic edition.

Hoff, J.D., D.W. Nelson, and A.L. Sutton. 1981. Ammonia Volatilization From Liquid Swine Manure Applied To Cropland. J. Environs. Quali. 10:90-94.

Hurt, C. 1994, Industrialization in the Pork Industry, Choices, Fourth Quarter, pp. 9-13.

Kanwar, R.S., D.L, Karlen, C. Camberdella, and R.M. Cruser, 1995. Swine Manure and Nitrogen Management Systems. Impact on Groundwater Quality In Clean Water-Clean

Environment-21st Century. Conference Proceedings. V.II: Nutrients, Kansas City MO. ASAE pp. 91-94.

King, L.S., J.C. Burns, and P.W. Westermann. 1990. Long Term Swine Lagoon Effluent Applications on "Coastal" Bermudagrass. II Effect On Nutrient Accumulation In Soil. J. Environs. Quali. 19: 756-760.

Kreil, Larry. Special Report: Turning The Ark-New Directions for Animal Agriculture. Center for Rural Affairs. September 1991. Walthill, Nebraska.

Meredith, Roderick C. Unclean Meats Interview, The World Tommorrow Magazine, November 1996.

News and Observer, (1995) March 19, The Power of Pork, Raleigh, NC.

Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), 1991 US Dairy at Crossroad; Biotechnology and Policy Choices-Special Report OTA-F-470. Washington, DC, U.S. Printing Office, May.

Purvis, A; and J. Outlaw, 1995, What We Know About Technological Innovation To Achieve Environmental Compliance. Policy Issues for an Industrializing Animal Agriculture Sector. Amer. J. Agric. Econ. 77:1237-1243.

Sutton, A.L., D.M. Nelson, and D.D. Jones, 1990, Strategies For Maximizing the Nutrient Utilization of Animal Waste as a Fertilizer Resource. Agricultural and Food Processing Waste. Proceedings. Chicago, ASAE, pp. 139-147.

Tribe, Derek. 1994. Feeding and Greening The World: The Role of International Agricultural Research. CAB International. UK

Copyright © 2010 June Narber, All Rights Reserved.