The looming trade war exposes a dependence on industrial farming

Hog houses and lagoons stack up one over the other near Faison.
Hog houses and lagoons stack up one over the other near Faison. cseward@newsobserver.com

Newspaper headlines are focused on a looming trade war between the U.S. and China. After President Trump placed a 25 percent tariff on Chinese imports of steel, China retaliated with a 25 percent tariff on several U.S. products, including pork.

Media reports that the tariff from China has unsettled an important part of Trump’s political base, rural farmers. The U.S. exports over a quarter of its hog production, a major portion of which goes to China. In the same vein, North Carolina exports 25 percent of its hog production, 15 percent of which goes directly to China. North Carolina is the second-largest hog producing state in the nation. It follows that China’s tariff on U.S. hog imports will substantially hurt the NC hog industry.

Farmers are an important American political symbol. They provide food for the nation, tend to the land and are credited for much of the foundational success of the American economy. Yet, the traditional idea of the American family farm bears little resemblance to today’s industrial farming practices. The ease at which China upsets U.S. farmers highlights the contrast between the American political myth of the family farm and today’s international, industrial agricultural enterprise.

Modern livestock agricultural practices rely on factory centralization. Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, better known as CAFOs, result in, well, concentrated amounts of animal waste. The waste contains high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, fecal bacteria and residue of the pharmaceuticals the animals are fed. Its concentrated form is thus highly polluting and CAFO managers retain the waste in nearby open pits, periodically spraying it out on adjoining fields. But storm water runoff, causes the animal waste sludge to run into the nearby rivers, polluting downstream waterways and coastal estuaries.

North Carolina has long been aware of the agricultural effects on water quality because it harms another cherished heritage, fishing. Leading up to the Fisheries Reform Act of 1997, scientists, policymakers, sport and commercial fishermen and citizen’s groups all agreed that agricultural runoff was detrimental to NC commercial and recreational fishing. Yet, directly addressing inland CAFOs and other agricultural practices has proven politically difficult. Instead, policymakers have focused regulations on commercial fishing practices and gear.

The new threat that Chinese tariffs poses to hog production and NC economics makes it plain that state policymakers have long favored hog industry interests, and even the interests of other nations such as China, over Americans’ needs for clean water to support public health, recreation and the heritage of coastal communities. That is, at least to some extent, North Carolinians have suffered harm to their environment in order to produce pork for China.

The popular social trend in America, including North Carolina, is better accessibility to local food produced by the traditional small family farm. One prime example, a Feast Downeast, makes an effort to connect rural family farms and fisheries directly with local customers such as underserved communities in Wilmington that lack easy access to fresh produce. .

A trade war is of little benefit to anyone. But the current state of affairs sheds light on a troubling industrial practice that harms animal welfare, the environment, human health and other occupations steeped in heritage: fishing and local farming.

Rather than being quick to anger about the tariff and point the finger at what many consider another Trump blunder, it is more productive to consider how the challenge brings forth an opportunity to strengthen our communities. Improving accessibility to and support of local food production speaks to deeply rooted shared American values while supporting environmental and human health and well-being. It will also support another time-honored commercial and recreational tradition: fishing.

Jessica Weinkle, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Coastal and Ocean Policy at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.