All eyes have been on the state's hog farms, while its poultry operations have quietly tripled in number over the past two decades with little oversight.
North Carolina is notorious for its hog farms, a vast industry that ranks second in the nation and is home to the largest hog slaughterhouse in the world. It also produces 10 billion gallons of liquefied hog waste every year, which has resulted in state regulators now debating how to manage it all.
But could their attention be turned to the wrong problem? A report from the Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance, published earlier this year, suggests that the state's rapidly expanding poultry industry is an even bigger environmental disaster, not least of all because it's largely unregulated and farmers do not have to disclose the locations of new poultry operations.FoodTank reports, "This study found that the number of poultry in N.C. has more than tripled since 1997 with the EWG reporting 515.3 million chickens and turkeys in N.C. as of 2018. N.C. poultry produces three times more nitrogen and six times more phosphorus than hogs."
There are 4,700 poultry farms in the state, generating five million tons of waste annually. That's in addition to 2,100 swine operations, which "generate enough liquefied waste to fill more than 15,000 Olympic-size swimming pools every year."
The poultry waste, or 'dry litter', as it's called, is a mix of feces, feathers, and dirty bedding. It is kept in huge piles before being spread on fields as fertilizer, but this makes it susceptible to washing into nearby waterways during rainy weather, especially when farms are located in flood-prone areas. This isn't uncommon, despite a 1997 moratorium on hog farm expansion that was precipitated by hurricanes harming farms in floodplains.
The EWG report cites regulations that state that the piles cannot be uncovered for longer than 15 days, but there is minimal oversight. The state's Department of Environmental Quality inspects poultry operations only if there's a complaint.
The report wants regulators to take poultry waste into account when figuring out a strategy for handling hog waste, as the two result in toxic runoff into the same bodies of water:
"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... to renew the anemic general permit governing swine animal feeding operations."
Demand for cheap chicken drives the industrial approach to animal-raising, but it's time people understood they end up paying for their meat in other ways when their health and quality of life are compromised. Surely there is a better way to do this.
Read the whole report here.