Our Agricultural Innovation Lags Behind China

One common belief is that, in the U.S., we are encumbered by environmental regulations, while other, supposedly less developed countries gain short-term economic advantages by poisoning their environments. As this article about the environmental damage caused by pig production suggests, that’s not always the case (boldface mine):

It’s undeniable that WH Group and Smithfield benefit from the low-cost [fecal] lagoons. Today, raising hogs somewhere like North Carolina is almost 50% cheaper than in China where hogs are still bred on thousands of small farms. Lagoons, which require little manpower to operate, along with cheaper feed in the US, and the use of larger and more efficient CAFOs have helped lower costs. The average hog production costs in China more than doubled between 2002 and 2009. But in the US those costs fell by over a quarter (p. 24) between 1998 and 2009 as industrial hog farming and the accompanying lagoon system got underway in places like North Carolina.

Even Smithfield’s corporate owner in China uses what lagoon skeptics would call more advanced technology that North Carolina lawmakers deemed too expensive to force farms to use. WH Group’s seven pork farms in China—which produced just 311,000 sows last year, compared to Smithfield’s 14.7 million—use a dry manure removal process that separates the solids from the liquids and stores them in oxidized lagoons. Two of the farms use a digester system where the lagoons are covered and used to generate electricity.

In fact, finding new technologies that cut down on odor and potential leaks into water sources has become a national priority for the country. A pollution census in 2010 found that agricultural pollution, and especially manure from livestock operations, was a larger source of water pollution than industry. Since then, China’s ministry of agriculture has been promoting the use of biogas digesters.

All this bolsters arguments that poorer agricultural communities in eastern North Carolina are fast becoming China’s outsourced factory farms. “Water and air pollution, emissions of noxious gases… All of those things are here. We’re getting all of those negative impacts and all of the profits are going to China, and a lot of that meat will go to China,” says Burdette, the water advocate for the Cape Fear River.

Through its ownership of Smithfield, WH Group effectively owns one in four pigs raised in the US. It’s an ironic reversal of roles in global trade, given American consumers’ presumption that it is they who benefit from cheap products manufactured by low wage workers in China.

“Historically, the rich countries have been able to get natural resources and cheap labor from poorer countries. Now what’s happening is you have a company…that is producing in a way that destroys the health and environment in a rich country,” says Wing, the epidemiologist from UNCCH.

This is why we need regulation–assuming the market will take care of it doesn’t let everyone ‘get to win’ (boldface mine):

If Smithfield spent or required its contract farms to spend an additional $52,000 per average farm—the cheapest alternative option that researchers came up with during the Smithfield-funded initiative in 2000—it could dispose of its farms’ hog manure in less odorous ways.

In fact, its farms in other states are already using some of these technologies. In Utah, Smithfield uses “anaerobic digesters,” or covered lagoons in which methane is captured and used to generate biogas. (Hog farms in Germany, the European Union’s largest hog producer, use this method.) Smithfield says the project should eventually produce about 25,000 megawatt hours of electricity a year. In Missouri, some Smithfield farms have also installed lagoon covers to capture biogas, as well as barn scrapers that shovel the waste into storage units or a lagoon rather then flushing it out with water, which helps cut down on odor and emissions (pdf, p.21).

Why doesn’t Smithfield go ahead and adopt some of these technologies in North Carolina? “We’re rich and big and how come we just don’t do it? The answer is we’re also a for profit company that has an obligation to shareholders,” says Smithfield’s chief sustainability officer Dennis Treacy. He says the lagoons are “state of the art” and will not be going anywhere soon. “We constantly are looking for ways to change and have changed dramatically, but to do it willy-nilly, based on the whim of a scientist or a public opinion piece that shows up somewhere, we really have to take a hard look at that.”

So, the U.S. is technologically behind China and Germany, all so Smithfield can save money.

Efficient allocation of capital my posterior. Regulate them, regulate them now.

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1 Response to Our Agricultural Innovation Lags Behind China

  1. Michael says:

    Not to “save money”, but to maximize profits.

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