Should Hogs Live In Skyscrapers?

Food & Drink

Raising swine in high-rises seems like the premise of a dystopian television show—but it’s happening in real life. And from my perspective, it’s frightening.

Last fall, the world’s largest free-standing hog farm opened in a rural village in central China. It’s 26 stories tall. And together with an identical farm set to open soon, they’re expected to raise a staggering 1.2 million pigs per year.

Here’s how it works: The building looks like an enormous parking garage, and each floor is devoted to a different life stage of the animal. Massive amounts of feed are stored at the top of the structure, and 1 million pounds per day are distributed throughout the building by automated feeding machines that take into account hogs’ health and weight. Meanwhile, manure and wastewater come out the bottom.

I’m not being glib when I say this gives a new meaning to “factory farms.” New York Times journalists who toured the factory said it was “more like a Foxconn factory for pigs with the precision required of an iPhone production line.” Workers are on-site to help clean and monitor things, but so much of the operation is computerized.

And I’m also not being overly dramatic when I say this: High-rise hog farms are terrifying—for people, for animals, and for our planet. Those of us who’ve been watching the global livestock sector have known that these high-rises were on the horizon, and many of us have been warning against them for years. But now we’re seeing them come to life, and I continue to have extraordinarily serious concerns.

Raising animals humanely means giving them space to perform their natural behaviors, outdoors, in fresh air with plenty of room to move around. This is simply not possible in a 26-story building. And these conditions aren’t good for workers, either: Just look at the New York Times
NYT
journalists’ comparison to Foxconn, the company that produces Apple iPhones and other products for companies like Amazon
AMZN
, Google
GOOG
, and Nintendo. Last year, workers at Foxconn staged a mass public protest over working and living conditions—and workers have been alleging other dangerous, exploitative, and illegal conditions there over the past decade and a half.

Plus, cramming so many animals into tight spaces increases the risk for diseases to spread—not only to other animals, but potentially to people, too.

Regarding animal health, the sad irony is that high-rise projects could actually serve to intensify the disease concerns that they were meant to solve. In China, small hog farms have been disappearing for years, but the trend toward mega-farms really exploded after a 2018 outbreak of African swine fever virus decimated the country’s pork industry. With over a million hogs in just two buildings, the biosecurity risk is magnified immensely.

The environmental justice risk is significantly heightened, too. In concentrated farming operations like this, manure management and water safety are huge concerns. In studying concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, in the U.S., the Natural Resources Defense Council finds these farms pollute air; contaminate drinking water; and raise rates of asthma, lung disease, and bronchitis among not just farmworkers but also neighboring communities.

Just to put these hog high-rises in perspective when we talk about intensified industrial farming operations in the U.S.: Among other criteria relating to confinement and access to grass, a “large CAFO” is officially defined by the Environmental Protection Agency as an operation containing about 1,000 cows, or 2,500 hogs over 55 pounds, or 30,000 laying hens.

These buildings in China are orders of magnitude larger than the already-devastating industrial factory farms we’re seeing in the U.S. today. And concerning legislation in the Midwest could actually serve to bring even more CAFOs into business—and could shut down local, grassroots opposition to them.

Concentrated animal feeding operations, intensified factory farms, and hog high-rises cannot be the future of our food system. We cannot sacrifice the health and well-being of our animals, our neighbors and communities, and our planet in the pursuit of cheap meat. Let’s support smaller and medium-scale livestock operations who are working to nourish all of us and the land.

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