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Should we congratulate known polluters who concede to adding renewable energy to their mix?


Installing A Few Wind Turbines Isn’t Enough: Smithfield, Clean Up Your Environmental Act

Should we congratulate known polluters who concede to adding renewable energy to their mix?

Bacon and eggs. A heaping BLT. Pasta carbonara. Clam casino or spinach salad, each sprinkled with bacon bits. Yum! Who doesn’t love the smoky crunch of bacon in just about any meal?

Yes, we often love to indulge in things that please us. Then again, it’s important to remember the words from 20th century business person, W. Clement Stone: “Be careful the environment you choose, for it will shape you; be careful the friends you choose, for you will become like them.”

Smithfield clean up

United Wind/ Smithfield Foods Partnership

United Wind, the nation’s leading distributed wind energy developer, announced in March, 2019 that it had signed an agreement with Smithfield Foods, Inc., and we in the renewable energy community should’ve been excited. After all, the global food company and the world’s largest hog producer and pork processor has agreed to power dozens of its hog farms in Colorado with on-site wind energy. The glowing press release is effusive about how the partnership will provide Smithfield with long-term, low-cost renewable energy for its agricultural operations. Wind will contribute to Smithfield’s “industry-leading goal” to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25% by 2025 – “the first commitment of its kind from a protein company.”

“At Smithfield, we are committed to seeking out innovative ways to reduce our environmental impact, all while creating value for our company and stakeholders,” said Stewart Leeth, vice president of regulatory affairs and chief sustainability officer for Smithfield Foods. “This partnership with United Wind is part of our efforts to produce the food needed to feed a growing world population, while minimizing our use of natural resources.”

In 1999, Smithfield purchased the nation’s second largest hog production company, Carroll’s Foods, Inc., for its Colorado holdings with 180,000 sows. The purchase was for approximately $500 million, consisting of 3.3 million shares of Smithfield Foods common stock, $178 million in cash. They also added Western Pork Production Corp., a 12,000-sow unit, in Colorado the same year.

Smithfield Cleanup Is Little More than a PR Ploy

But, wait. Isn’t this the same company that had more than 130 waste lagoons compromised during Hurricane Florence, flooding North Carolina farming communities many miles inland? This kind of flooding takes a largely airborne issue which contains numerous disease pathogens and bacteria and sends them variously into neighboring lands, waterways — and drinking water.

According to the New Yorker, when a Chinese conglomerate called WH Group purchased Smithfield in 2013, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IO) described it as “a bit concerning” and asked, “How might this deal impact our national security?” Through a subsidiary called Murphy-Brown, Smithfield contracts approximately 1200 hundred of North Carolina’s 2200 hog farms to raise its pigs.

Smithfield claims that, for more than a dozen years, it has “worked hard to make sustainability and transparency more than just buzzwords.” Its website outlines that they “employ over 54,000 people who all work together to provide families worldwide with Good food. Responsibly.®”

You decide if the Smithfield policies are responsible.

Smithfield clean up

Photo provided by Southern Environmental Law Center

Bacon, Bacon! Factory Farms & Giant Lagoons

Bacon is cured meat cut from the sides of hogs. Owning hogs in today’s industrial agriculture system is part of a cycle of environmental degradation, as most hogs are raised on factory farms that produce tremendous amounts of air and water pollution. That’s because hog farms cram hundreds of thousands of animals in extremely tight conditions, then store all of the millions of tons of their excrement in open air lagoons. Animals raised for food produce about 130 times more excrement than the entire human population.

These lagoons off-gas toxic compounds like ammonia, hydrogen sulfite, endotoxins, methane, carbon dioxide, and bacteria. Many of these chemicals are known to cause severe respiratory irritation, dizziness confusion, high blood pressure, and, in some cases, brain damage.

To remove this waste, corporate agriculture drains the lagoons and spraying it on neighboring fields. One Green Planet reports that community members liken the spray to “rain,” and they have to close their windows and doors to keep it from getting inside their homes. The smell pervades nonetheless.

The waste can’t be used for fertilizer due to the toxins, antibiotics, and strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria within it. Yet, when sludge and wastewater is sprayed onto neighboring fields, it’s absorbed into the ground. It can contaminate groundwater, spread carcinogens, and disperse harmful compounds into waterways.

The federal government does not recognize the toxins sprayed in the process of emptying cesspools as illegal pollution.

Smithfield clean up

Smithfield announce its response to the massive criticism it received in the wake of multiple multi-million dollar jury verdicts against it for its hog farms’ effects on local communities. During the catastrophic rain events, the company’s arcane storage for hog waste, which neighbors have objected to for years, ended up polluting rivers and drinking water sources. The company outlined plans to produce biogas at 90% of its North Carolina industrial hog operations.

Do Concessions to Renewables Really Offset Hog Manure Pools?

Smithfield Foods says it plans to cover most of its hog lagoons in North Carolina to generate renewable energy from methane gas and to protect the waste pits from heavy rains, which caused significant environmental concerns during Hurricane Florence.

Reusing the hog waste seems good at first, that is, until we learn that Smithfield’s biogas proposal still relies on a primitive lagoon-and-sprayfield system that North Carolina juries recently found create a devastating nuisance for neighboring communities. Under this proposal, Smithfield will continue to store hog feces and urine in primitive, unlined pits before spraying the untreated waste on nearby fields, exposing communities in eastern North Carolina to health and environmental risks. Smithfield’s industrial hog operations are disproportionally located in communities of color, making these biogas projects an environmental justice issue.

Southern Environmental Law Center attorney Blakely Hildebrand, who is an expert on industrial hog operations, including Smithfield’s, provided a comment for CleanTechnica.

“The communities living near Smithfield’s industrial hog operations wish Smithfield would invest resources in cleaning up rivers, streams, and waterways throughout eastern North Carolina that the company routinely pollutes. Smithfield has refused to invest in cleaner technology that would prevent hog waste from polluting groundwater and waterways and creating noxious odors. With this announcement and others, the company has made clear it has the resources to invest in cleaner technology—but it refuses to do so.”

Is it enough that Smithfield says it will install manure lagoon covers and anaerobic digesters on 90% of its finishing hog farms in North Carolina, Missouri, and Utah within 10 years? Smithfield also plans to capture 85,000 tons of methane each year to generate renewable natural gas. Ick.

There is no information at this time as to whether Smithfield will pay for the lagoon covers or transfer the cost to contract farmers through sales adjustments.

Shouldn’t Smithfield begin using new and proven technologies in its processing facilities? Shouldn’t Smithfield be held accountable to the harm it does to the environment and the health of its neighbors? Is a little nod to wind for its Colorado hog production enough of an effort to reduce pollution?

As part of Smithfield’s sustainability program, each facility is expected to submit at least one sustainability project to its internal awards program, which recognizes environmental stewardship efforts coupled with economic benefits. One project? The depth and complexity of Smithfield’s environmental degradation is enormous — much vaster than a gratuitous nod at reducing pollution than a single project per facility per year could ever accomplish.

Congratulating a known polluter like Smithfield is one of the many inconsistencies in the sustainability movement. Yes, many companies are slowly transitioning away from environmental degradation practices, and, yes, it’s good to have wind powering Smithfield’s Colorado farms. But Smithfield is a company with flawed, inhumane, and environmentally destructive practices, and they need to be held accountable.

Smithfield clean up

Final Thoughts

Russell Tencer, CEO of United Wind, spoke in general terms about the new competitive distributed wind energy his company is bringing to Smithfield in Colorado. He praised renewable energy options now available to food and agricultural companies like Smithfield in wind-rich environments throughout rural areas of the country. “The economics and land-use attributes of distributed wind just make more sense in the areas we serve.”

It’s time to increase our awareness of factory farming so we can work at multiple levels to advocate for consumer and industry changes. It does start with our our eating habits. When we recognize the human and environmental impact that eating bacon causes, it transcends the “yum” factor.

Are you an individual who Smithfield says “trust our brands each year for their great taste, outstanding quality, and value?” All of our choices have downstream impacts in one way or another, but it is incredibly important that we learn to minimize that impact. Shifting your diet to be primarily plant-based is a real necessity to decrease your impact on the planet.

Let’s end with a quote from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a reminder of our individual responsibility to each other and the planet. From the “Letter from Birmingham Jail: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail and the Struggle That Changed a Nation:”

“In a real sense all life is interrelated. All humans are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

Images copyright free via Pixabay and Twitter

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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