Smithfield and Our Troubled Future

Photograph Source: William James Topley – Public Domain

On April 15th, Smithfield closed down its pork factory in Sioux Falls, South Dakota after 640 employees became sick from COVID-19. They constitute 44 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the state, making it the epicenter of the pandemic locally.

Joseph W. Luter founded the company in 1936. Like most industrial meat-producing companies, Smithfield became infamous for CAFO, the initials for concentrated animal feeding operation. Poultry farms were the first to convert operations to CAFO in the 1950s, followed by beef and pork in the ensuing decades. Smithfield’s flagship operation was Tar Heel, North Carolina, which processed 32,000 pigs a day. Given the highly concentrated nature of this mode of production, disposing of waste products is a chore for management. Pig excrement tends to follow the path of least resistance, however. It flows directly into the rivers and lakes of the states that house CAFO-type operations.

In 2019, Hurricane Florence struck North Carolina. In Duplin County, CAFOs produce twice as much pig urine and feces as all the toilets in New York City. Most of it ends up in hog “lagoons”, the open-air pits clustered in the area hardest hit by Hurricane Florence. It caused overflows that carried E. coli, salmonella, cryptosporidium, and other harmful bacteria into North Carolina waters. Even when there are no hurricanes, there is still extensive water pollution since the lagoons seep into groundwater that then pollutes rivers and lakes.

Unclean conditions within CAFOs have led to COVID-19. For people living close to such toxic operations, the outcome is just as devastating. Rich white people would not go near Smithfield’s plants, but those with meager incomes have no choice, just as the people living in poor neighborhoods in Queens have no choice when it comes to taking the subway to work in the morning.

A Duke University study revealed that people living in communities with the highest density of hog operations experienced 30 percent greater fatalities. People died from kidney disease, as well as 50 percent more deaths from anemia. There were 130 percent more deaths from sepsis, as compared to people in not near such big hog operations.

You can find a trail of articles about places like Smithfield going back nearly 20 years in CounterPunch, including one by its Hoosier editor Jeffrey St. Clair with his characteristically personal touch. He starts off by reminiscing about his grandfather’s farm, where he spent many idyllic days growing up despite the rank smell. In the early 70s, his grandfather and another codger were the only hold-outs who had not become part of the Smithfield empire, which he describes as follows ):

Pig factories are the foulest outposts in American agriculture. A single hog excretes nearly 3 gallons of waste per day, or 2.5 times the average human’s daily total. A 6,000-sow hog factory will generate approximately 50 tons of raw manure a day. An operation the size of Premium Standard Farms in northern Missouri, with more than 2 million pigs and sows in 1995, will generate five times as much sewage as the entire city of Indianapolis. But hog farms aren’t required to treat the waste. Generally, the stream of fecal waste is simply sluiced into giant holding lagoons, where it can spill into creeks or leach into ground water. Increasingly, hog operations are disposing of their manure by spraying it on fields as fertilizer, with vile consequences for the environment and the general ambience of the neighborhood.

In addition to rendering drinking water more harmful than those near fracking wells, CAFOs excel at generating viruses that can kill human beings most efficiently. In 2009, there were suspicions that a Smithfield plant in Perote, Mexico might have triggered the Swine Flu epidemic. It was small potatoes compared to COVID-19. Only 1000 people were infected, with 68 deaths. The Mexico City newspaper La Jornada quoted health officials who concluded that the original carrier was in the “clouds of flies” that thrived in Smithfield’s manure lagoons.

Among scientists warning over the connections between industrial meat production and pandemics, none has more authority than Rob Wallace, the author of “Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science” and a fellow of the Institute for Global Studies at the University of Minnesota. In a Monthly Review article titled “COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital” that he co-wrote with three other scientists, Wallace addresses both the failure of governments to respond adequately as well as the role of industrial farming in spawning pandemics. Although I strongly urge you to read the entire article, this paragraph is key:

However unintended, the entirety of the production line is organized around practices that accelerate the evolution of pathogen virulence and subsequent transmission. Growing genetic monocultures—food animals and plants with nearly identical genomes—removes immune firebreaks that in more diverse populations slow down transmission. Pathogens now can just quickly evolve around the commonplace host immune genotypes. Meanwhile, crowded conditions depress immune response. Larger farm animal population sizes and densities of factory farms facilitate greater transmission and recurrent infection. High throughput, a part of any industrial production, provides a continually renewed supply of susceptibles at barn, farm, and regional levels, removing the cap on the evolution of pathogen deadliness. Housing a lot of animals together rewards those strains that can burn through them best. Decreasing the age of slaughter—to six weeks in chickens—is likely to select for pathogens able to survive more robust immune systems. Lengthening the geographic extent of live animal trade and export has increased the diversity of genomic segments that their associated pathogens exchange, increasing the rate at which disease agents explore their evolutionary possibilities.

Both capitalist parties have politicized the question of China’s role in the pandemic. The Trump administration has made China a scapegoat, insisting on calling the disease the “Chinese flu”. With Joe Biden showing himself fully capable of mud-slinging, his campaign released an ad this week that described Trump as “soft on China.” The ad featured Trump’s compliments to the Chinese early on in the hopes that voters will rise to the bait. With Russiagate having little impact on opinion polls, it is difficult to understand why baiting the Chinese will work. That, of course, is much more consistent with the Democratic Party’s agenda than, for example, pressing for Medicare for All or providing income to families whose bread-winners have lost their job.

However, you don’t have to be a Sinophobe to comment on China’s role in the Smithfield trail of tears. In 2013, the WH Group purchased Smithfield for $4.72 billion. That price was the largest Chinese investors ever paid for an American company. It now made them the producer of one out of five pieces of pork consumed globally. In addition to seeing Smithfield as a highly profitable operation, the new management hoped to satisfy the insatiable appetite for pork in China.

One of the hottest debates taking place on the left is whether China is imperialist or not. Some see its role in Africa as mostly progressive even if most of its investments have been in mineral and agricultural commodity extraction. If the goal is to keep water pollution to a minimum, there is a logic to the Smithfield take-over. Hailed by some environmentalists for moving away from fossil fuels, others point out that China is heavily involved with coal. Edward Cunningham, a Harvard University professor who follows Chinese economic development, told NPR  that China is building or planning more than 300 coal plants in places as widely spread as Turkey, Vietnam, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Egypt and the Philippines.

Wan Long is the long-time CEO of the WH Group. Although not a member of the Communist Party, he is a delegate to the National People’s Congress, the highest decision-making body in the nation. For the Chinese, the need to keep its nearly 1.5 billion people fed is of the highest priority.

As part of the breakneck drive to keep the masses satisfied, the agricultural sector paid little attention to environmental costs. In keeping with the “Green Revolution,” farmers soaked the soil with chemicals. China became synonymous with tainted food, from mercury-laden rice to melamine-infused milk powder.

Was there any way for China to produce enough safe food for its growing population if they all start eating like Americans? In keeping with the challenge posed by de-growth advocates, including me, the simple answer is that it can’t. It takes about one acre to feed the average U.S. consumer, but China only has about 0.2 acres of arable land per citizen, including polluted fields. For government planners, the future looks bleak in light of reports that almost 20 percent of China’s remaining arable land is contaminated.

That is one of the main reasons that China roams the planet looking for pig farms to buy or arable land to grow soybeans and other commodities necessary for home consumption. Recently Donald Trump shocked liberals for cutting off funds for the WHO. To a large extent, he singled out its leader Tedros Adhanom for making the same kind of flattering comments about China’s response to the Wuhan outbreak.

Adhanom, an Ethiopian, might have had good reasons to go easy on the Chinese. China is the largest foreign direct investment (FDI) source in Ethiopia, accounting for about 60 percent of the newly approved foreign projects in the East African country during 2019. In addition to staking out claims in the country’s farming regions, China has also helped the country set up industrial zones that will be of more long-term value.

Looking down at Earth from some distant planet, a space alien might wonder where all this was going. Pandemics caused by industrial farming? Industrial farming a product of hunger for meat that has questionable nutritional value? Polluted waters from CAFOs? Where does it all end? In “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Klaatu came to Earth in order to call us to order. Our nuclear weapons were a threat to other civilizations on other planets. Unfortunately for us, there are no distant planets that can rescue us. It is up to us to carry out that mission. As Walt Kelly’s Pogo once put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.