The smell of money: Jim Crow lingers in factory farming

Gene Baur is president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary.
Gene Baur is president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary.

Factory farming in North Carolina recently took a hit in a federal nuisance lawsuit when a jury awarded plaintiffs more than $50 million in damages in their case against Smithfield.

As we’d expected, the agribusiness giant is appealing, and a judge has reduced the jury’s penalty by over 90 percent to just around $3 million. Despite the setback, residents of rural North Carolina remain determined to stand up to the world's largest pork producer, and challenge a cruel and corrupt system.

For decades, North Carolinians have suffered the influx of industrialized animal agriculture and the putrid waste it generates. Neighbors find themselves trapped within their own homes to avoid the flies and noxious gases from confined animal feeding operations where animals are packed by the thousands in miserable conditions, and excrement is produced by the tons, then stored in massive cesspools and sprayed over the land and into the air.

Agribusiness flippantly refers to the foul odors emanating from factory farms as the smell of money, but that sickening stench is contributing to headaches, nausea, lost property value, and a decimated quality of life for low-income neighbors. What’s more, 14 of these rural North Carolina homes tested positive for bacteria, called Pig-2-Bac, a marker for pig feces.

Corporate agriculture is notorious for colonizing and polluting impoverished communities. They invest in the political process to enact self-serving measures that weaken environmental and other regulations, enabling their egregious behavior to continue with impunity.

Factory farming extracts wealth and forces residents, who are often economically disadvantaged, to deal with dangerous chemicals, antibiotic-resistant pathogens, and other pollutants. Citizens of North Carolina continue suffering the deleterious impacts of industrialized animal agriculture, even though the state passed a moratorium in 1997 to prevent the expansion of hog factories.

Numerous lawsuits have been filed, but citizens are up against an immensely powerful and entrenched industry. North Carolina has a “right to farm” law, which makes it difficult for neighbors to protect themselves, and enacted additional legislation last year to further undermine citizens’ rights and ability to seek restitution after having passed an “ag gag” law in 2016 to prevent the public from learning about the abuses of factory farming.

The ongoing opposition to industrial agriculture and its heavy-handed tactics in North Carolina and beyond is unearthing historic and continuing abuses of power, along with established patterns of injustice. Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wrote a letter to the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality expressing “deep concern about the possibility that African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have been subject to discrimination.”

Apparently, Jim Crow lingers. Disenfranchised citizens, disproportionately people of color, continue their uphill battle against a violent and powerful industry and its high powered lawyers and lobbyists. Among the most vocal citizen activists is Duplin County resident Elsie Herring, who has battled against factory farming in North Carolina for years.

Her grandfather, a freed slave, acquired the property where she now lives at the end of the 19th century. When factory farms moved into her neighborhood in the 1990s, Elsie was directly and negatively impacted. Despite many challenges and setbacks, she and neighbors like her persist in their efforts to seek justice and make industrial animal agriculture accountable.

Throughout history, powerful economic and political interests, including the factory farming industry, have exploited and mistreated those with less power. Unfortunately, agribusiness operatives remain entrenched in local, state and federal legislatures, enacting policies that enable this pattern to continue so they can keep abusing animals, destroying ecosystems, and threatening their neighbors’ health and well-being. Certain behaviors are outside the bounds of acceptable conduct, but in North Carolina, they have been shielded by politicians who are unduly influenced by the smell of money.

Thankfully, the courts are now hearing evidence and addressing these matters, and they could finally help bring about some justice and require that agribusinesses behave with basic human decency.

Gene Baur is president and co-founder of Farm Sanctuary, an author, and a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.