World Pork Expo ignores hog farming’s environmental implications


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With a festival boasting more than 20,000 exhibitors and attendees, more various barbecued animal parts than you can shake a stick at (or put a stick in), and endless vows of eye-catching booths, you’d think the Iowa State Fair decided to open the fairgrounds early this year. Or a Republican presidential candidate came to town.

But you’d be wrong on both counts (though the latter is sadly inevitable). The 2011 World Pork Expo has descended on the outskirts of Des Moines, a sweltering three-day celebration of all things swine.

While hog farming may be a great financial boon to our state — it adds approximately $2.5 billion to the economy and supplies 39,000 jobs, according to the Iowa Pork Producers Association — justifying its environmental and health implications (not to mention a slew of animal-rights abuses) is like putting lipstick on the proverbial pig.

As we all know, hog production in Iowa is a big stinkin’ deal: Not only are we, the nation’s breadbasket, providing the tenderloin for America’s sandwiches, but Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, and Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey are hoping to increase pork and beef exports to South Korea as well. (After a violent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, I might add, took a third of that nation’s pigs.) So any hope of maintaining currently high levels of production or returning to ethical, small-scale farming is obviously not in the governor’s pro-agribusiness agenda.

Instead, events such as the World Pork Expo are held to educate hog farmers about the latest and greatest advances in raising pigs bigger, stronger, faster, fatter. In 2007, there were 17.9 million hogs in the state, 95 percent of which were raised on Contained Animal Feeding Operations, according to a 2011 report by Food & Water Watch. The report also noted that Iowa was the “No. 1 producer of factory-farmed hogs in the United States in 2007.”

Former secretary of Agriculture candidate and small-scale Iowa farmer Francis Thicke thinks that this development isn’t something to be celebrated with World Expo-esque trade shows and seminars from the Pork Academy.

“Today’s vertically integrated hog industry has driven most of Iowa’s independent hog producers out of business, and it is extracting the profits of hog production from farms and local communities,” he wrote in an e-mail, adding that those profits have been supplanted “into the coffers of big agribusiness.”

But more pigs equal more money for hard-working farmers, right? (Hog farmers are now literally “bringing home the bacon.”) Consider the “leftovers:” Iowa livestock emit a combined 50 million tons of excrement per year. Hog excrement is especially high in both hydrogen sulfide and ammonia content, which contaminate the air, have been causally linked to higher asthma rates near factory farms, and generally make the state smell like … well, crap.

In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that farmers nationwide pumped 29 million pounds of antibiotics into livestock in 2009 — over one-third of that amount was just for pigs — the result of which increasingly lessens antibiotic effectiveness across the animal food chain (including in humans).

Overproducing pork has negative ramifications for the environment as well. Runoff and waste from large-scale farming in the Midwest has led to a massive algal buildup in the Gulf of Mexico, dubbed “the Dead Zone” by some creative mind. Air quality, pervasive odors, water purity, long-term land ruination are a great trade for a little extra bacon on America’s ever-expanding plates.

But something tells me these issues are not at the top of the World Pork Expo’s agenda.

Instead, attendees and retailers from 23 states can compete in a clay target shoot-off, peruse goods from 450 commercial vendors, and get trained in pork quality assurance — all while enjoying a barbecued version of the “finished product.”

Promoting more responsible hog-farming practices with higher attention to environmental and health effects at the World Pork Expo? Maybe when pigs fly.

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