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Factory farms vs. the little guy

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Posted on : 1:35 PM | By : Nic | In : , ,

So... the rumors going around today is that the swine flu came from a lagoon of pig manure located on a particular partly-American-owned farm located in Mexico. Whether or not this is in fact true or not may be difficult to prove, but it has brought up some interesting discussion on how safe factory farming is vs. small farms, and what a factory farm really is.

I've personally seen a couple of ways to keep pigs. I once toured a pig farm in the suburbs of Las Vegas, Nevada that was quite large, and utilized waste cooking grease from the many restaurants to feed the pigs. It was quite a recycling facility. The most memorable part of this tour was the amazing, incredibly overpowering smell. There were what seemed like a hundred little pens, each containing a few pigs wallowing in their own filth. I don't remember touring where this manure went.

Alternatively, my aunt and uncle had a couple of hogs one year in a not very big pen, roomy enough for them to both relax, and there was hardly any smell. Just regular stink, rather than an overpowering, gag-reflex smell. The pigs my uncle had were healthy, clean and happier.

Despite how obviously less healthy the Las Vegas farm was, I don't think that could really be called a factory farm. The pigs were outside, had small shelters and small runs for them to walk around. Water sprayed down on them periodically to cool them off in the heat, and even though it seemed big to me, it wasn't really a 'factory'. The photo below from Farm Sanctuary shows what a pig factory farm looks like:



If you read the website linked above you will understand the pork-production process a little better. I won't get into it too much here, but the key to profitable factory farming is in cramming as many animals into one spot as possible. This causes many fatalities to the animals, but in the long run makes the company more money.

In my search for more info on swine manure lagoons, I found this post on Boing Boing from 2007 about how factory pig farms are some of the biggest polluters, and unfortunately names the exact same company being accused of starting the swine flu. Smithfield's lagoons can cover 120,000 square feet and can be 30 feet deep. These disease and antibiotic-laden pools sometimes overflow after a little rain, and workers just spray it onto neighboring fields, exposing pretty much everyone in the area to whatever was in there. Here's what they look like:


(This photo is from an article from the Iowa State University extension)

It looks pretty harmless right? Lagoons are a common way of handling manure, and in some places replace septic tanks for humans as well. It is mismanagement that can cause contamination.

The other issue is that some people believe there is less exposure to disease on a factory farm than there would be on a small farm, because factory farms try so hard to be sanitary and use antibiotics routinely. Statistically, this is a false assumption. In cases involving salmonella and other diseases, conventional farms are far more likely to have the disease present AND the strain of the disease is more likely to resist antibiotics than on an organic farm (take a look at this example study regarding salmonella).

Although I'm still not convinced that this swine flu is really anything to be worried about, I am glad that it is raising some questions about conventional farming methods and will hopefully give even more credibility to the local food movement. Swine flu doesn't come from eating pork, but it just shows once again how limiting the meat you eat has a much bigger impact on farming practices and the environment.

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