Opinion: Is half a loaf of bread better than none?

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Many of my blog posts notwithstanding I root for big-agriculture.  I want them to succeed.

At heart, I am a pragmatist that realizes big ag must be part of any solution to feed the world's growing population.  But having said that there are specific things I believe big ag must do as part of its corporate identity:

  1. Provide bountiful, healthy, nutritious and safe raw and processed foods at a price point within the means of most Americans.
  2. Seek the greatest profitability, but with the highest ethical standards. Do no harm to people in making money for stockholders.
  3. Realize the world population is exploding and plow significant profits back into research and development to innovate new food solutions.
  4. Cut no corners in seeking and acquiring FDA and USDA approval of new ag technologies and food production techniques. Allow for independent and transparent examination of new technologies.
  5. When there is an identified problem that impacts human health solve it.

There are others … but these are the biggies.  Unfortunately, big agriculture's drive for maximum profit often violates these standards.

This past, October I blogged about the never-ceasing problem with Smithfield's love for confined animal feeding operation waste lagoons.

In the blog post, I was especially critical of Smithfield doing nothing to deal with multiple hurricanes over a period of years overflowing pig poop pits and contaminating nearby streams, creeks and groundwater.

Little did I know that within a week of my blog Smithfield announced plans to do something about it.

Smithfield – along with Virginia based Dominion Energy – is spending $250 million as part of a pilot program to cover waste lagoon with polyethylene and convert trapped methane into natural gas and sell it in the renewable energy market.

Smithfield plans to invest heavily in gas purifiers, pipelines, tanker trucks, pipeline right-of-ways, in order to connect with existing pipeline networks.

All good right?

Smithfield perhaps makes a profit – although that's not guaranteed – and fewer pollutants released into the atmosphere.  The waste lagoon covers may also make it less likely of overflow during significant rain storms.  Winner, winner chicken dinner.

Except.

Smithfield owns fewer than 100 CAFOs.  Thus Smithfield's 2025 goal of reducing the company's greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent in North Carolina, Missouri and Utah will hinge in part on independent hog farmers who contract with Smithfield.

Thus one huge problem is who is going to pay for all this technology after the initial $250 million is spent?  Because make no bones about it.  It's expensive.

And beyond that Smithfield's biogas proposal does nothing to fix the lagoon-and-sprayfield system that has exposed eastern North Carolina communities to environmental and health risks.

In short after methane is collected the liquid waste will still be sprayed on crop fields.  Lawsuits about noxious odors and health complaints will continue.  See corporate identity point two above.

I want to fully embrace Smithfield's plan … but I simply can't.

I'm totally in on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  But Smithfield could have done so much more to relieve the terrible living conditions of people unfortunate enough to live around CAFOs.

About Dave Dickey

Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.