As Muslims, the most we concern ourselves with pork is whether our gummy bears have gelatin. That said, the pork industry in the West is huge, and has an impact not only on those who consume pork products, but on those who live in the vicinity of hog operations, those who breathe the air and drink the water around factory farms, those who live downstream from factory farms, those who enjoy and benefit from healthy water systems in the United States (which includes all U.S. residents as well as those around the Gulf of Mexico), and fundamentally, those who care about the health and well-being of creation, including humans, animals, and ecosystems. Lastly, this is a social justice issue, not only with regard to the environment but to the uneven impact that industrial hog farming has on poor communities.
Industrial hog farming takes place in CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) where up to 10,000 animals are confined indoors, bred, fed, and fattened for slaughter. Sows (female pigs) are kept in small stalls where they often cannot turn around. Piglets are kept in a separate stall and allowed to feed through the bars, which prevents the sow from smothering them in the small space. Hog tails are routinely cut, as confined pigs often chew off the tails of other pigs as a result of stress. The waste from hog CAFOs is collected in large lagoons, and then sprayed using cannons over fields, and often over streams and other waterways. These operations exist in stark contrast to farms raising free-range pigs fed an appropriate and healthy diet, allowed to live the way they were created to live (for example, Niman Ranch).
Air and Water Quality
“Documents from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) show that nationwide, 1.5 billion pounds of nitrogen from manure lagoons and another 880 million pounds of nitrogen from liquefied manure spread on land, ends up in surface waters after first evaporating into the air. Hog operations also emit 70,000 tons of hydrogen sulfide gas, 296,000 tons of methane, and 127,000 tons of carbon dioxide every year.” (source)
The liquid waste lagoons, which contain huge quantities of hydrogen sulfide and ammonia, generate horrific smells as waste evaporates into the air. These smells unpredictably waft into the homes of nearby residents, disrupting people’s lives, diminishing the value of their homes, and causing embarrassment and shame. It may not sound like a big deal, but imagine living with the stench of hog waste.
On small-scale farms, dried hog waste is a great fertilizer as it contains both nitrogen and phosphorus. However, in large quantities, these elements cause poisonous algal blooms in waterways that result in giant dead zones where there is no oxygen available to life forms. There is a dead zone nearly 7,000 miles wide at the mouth of the Mississippi River in the Gulf of Mexico, where nitrogen from factory farms all along the Mississippi River ends up. Nitrogen also supports the growth of Pfiesteria which, according to Nicolette Hahn Niman, is “a tiny organism that kills fish by liquifying its flesh, including Atlantic ocean fish who use American waterways to spawn. Pfiesteria also releases toxins that can cause a host of problems, including neurological damage, in humans.”
Locally, the amount of hog waste sprayed over fields and waterways results in fish kills and contaminates ground water. During storms, lagoons sometimes overflow and flood surrounding areas with hog waste. Disturbingly, “A large hog complex generates more waste every day than the human waste produced by a city like New York or Los Angeles–except that human waste is treated.” (N. H. Niman). Waste lagoons are untreated or minimally treated, contain heavy metals, and form breeding grounds for bacteria and viruses that develop resistance to the antibiotics pumped into factory farmed hogs.
Locally, residents face immediate health risks of inhaling hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and the dust from hog feces, including allergies, eye problems, nausea, and respiratory issues. These health problems overwhelmingly impact low-income communities. But no matter where we live, we should be worried about industrial hog and other animal farming.
On small farms, when animals get sick they can quickly be managed by attentive farmers. When large numbers of animals are crowded together in hot, dark places with little personal oversight, disease festers. Antibiotics are administered both to control otherwise rampant disease, as well to encourage rapid growth. These antibiotics are then pumped into the lagoons along with hog waste. On the farms and in the lagoons, viruses and bacteria proliferate and develop immunities to the antibiotics all around them.
“…The same economy-of-scale efficiencies that allow CAFOs to produce affordable meat for so many consumers also facilitate the mutation of viral pathogens into novel strains that can be passed on to farm workers and veterinarians, according to Gregory Gray, director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.
“When respiratory viruses get into these confinement facilities, they have continual opportunity to replicate, mutate, reassort, and recombine into novel strains,” Gray explains. “The best surrogates we can find in the human population are prisons, military bases, ships, or schools. But respiratory viruses can run quickly through these [human] populations and then burn out, whereas in CAFOs—which often have continual introductions of [unexposed] animals—there’s a much greater potential for the viruses to spread and become endemic.” (source: National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences)
We might not eat them, but that doesn’t mean that Allah did not create the pig. Pigs are intelligent and social animals who love to root around outside, build nests, care for their young, and communicate with one another. Like other animals confined to CAFOs, pigs suffer physically and psychologically. As Muslims, we should remember the Qur’anic ayah in which Allah proclaims:
There is not a living creature on earth, nor a bird that flies with its two wings, but are communities like you. We have neglected nothing in the Book, then unto their Lord they all shall be gathered. (6:38)
Though Muslims don’t consume pork, we remain stakeholders in the pork industry because of its effects. All of us benefit from having clean waterways, and we suffer as a community when they become polluted. We certainly should be concerned about new and dangerous diseases. Lastly, industrial hog farming is symptomatic of industrial agriculture as a whole, which places a premium on the amount of product sold without regard for its impact on the environment, the health of workers and local communities, and the well being of animals. This includes beef, poultry, and even fish, all of which are meats that most of us consume. Muslims can set an example by supporting farmers and businesses who implement best practices that take into consideration animal welfare as well as environmental and health issues. In doing so, we can fulfill our role as witnesses as we are commanded to do in the Qur’an:
We have made you believers into a just community, so that you may bear witness to the truth before others and so that the Messenger may bear witness to it before you. (2:143)
For those who are interested in the issue of water quality, check out the Waterkeeper Alliance.
To learn more about the global impacts of industrial hog farming, watch Pig Business, a documentary by British filmmaker Tracy Worcester.
Map of Hog-Farming Concentrations Across the United States from Food and Water Watch
Righteous Porkchop, Nicolette Hahn Niman (read chapter one here)