If you’re interested in getting into
big-time corporate hog production, don’t go to North Carolina. Don’t
go to Quebec either, or Taiwan or Iowa or the Netherlands.
In every one of these places, huge
industrial hog-breeding facilities — commonly known as mega hog barns,
factory farms, CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) or ILOs
(intensive livestock operations) — have so fouled the nest that what
was once embraced by gung-ho governments has been spat out like a bad
piece of bacon.
But should you come to friendly Manitoba,
you’re in luck.
While the rest of the world bolts its
doors, and organizations like the Canadian Medical Association and the
National Farmers Union call for nationwide moratoria, Manitoba’s
government (and most other provinces, except Quebec) is still shampooing
the red carpet.
"It's as if English Canada has a
welcome mat that says, ‘Feel Free to use our Rural Communities as a
Sewer,’" says Janine Gibson, whose travels certifying Manitoba
organic farms have given her a panoramic view of "the sewer."
For Eva Pip, a celebrated University of
Winnipeg biologist and toxicologist who specializes in water safety, the
sewer has come dangerously close to home. Since she moved to the
Beausejour area ten years ago, Pip’s home has been increasingly
surrounded by intensive hog and cattle operations. It might as well be a
metaphor for the whole province, as far as she’s concerned.
"When I came here ten years ago it
was wonderful, some of the best water in Manitoba. But now I have to
boil my water all the time, because from time to time there has been
Cryptosporidium in it, there has been E. coli in it — and you didn’t
have that ten years ago."
I ask her about "the toughest
environmental standards in the world" that government and industry
keep insisting we have.
Pip shakes off the fatigue of a long day
of field work on the west shore of Lake Winnipeg. "This is what we
always hear — ‘the toughest regulations,’" she shoots back,
"and my response to that always is, if we really do have the
toughest regulations then this is why all of these operators are
flooding here from all these other places — Germany and Belgium and
the States — because they want to be under the toughest
I mention I’ve heard it’s not the
regulations that are the problem; it’s enforcement.
"Oh it’s horrible!"
Pip replies. "I myself, I have called so many times to report
things . . . and I’ll be darned if you even see anybody come out and
take a look most of the time. And then even if they do come and take a
look then it’s just warnings."
Pip suggests I go to the provincial
website and look for myself. "You’ll see that in almost every
single case where they responded and did find an infraction it was just
a warning. And then when they did impose a fine, which would have been
usually for a repeat offense, those fines are tiiiiiiiiiiny,
tiny. . . .In most cases that fine isn’t even the price of one
Later I confirm that from 1994 through
2003 the total bill for the billion-dollar industry and all other
livestock offenders was $80,048.
"I compare it to Mexican labour
law," quips Fred Tait, a cattle farmer near MacGregor and President
of Hogwatch Manitoba, the industry’s arch-gadfly. Tait accuses his
former party, the NDP, of failing to restore the province’s
Conservation and Environment departments — "devastated" by
the PCs in the 90s — to where they would have "any possible
capacity of doing any good here."
Janine Gibson, who lives in the Hanover
and La Broquerie area, sees the consequences of the alleged government
laxity all around her:
"I have personally seen ditches
green with algae from likely phosphorus leaching, the Seine full of dead
fish from a breached lagoon and poor barn and earthern storage sites
completely surrounded by water in the spring," she writes in an
"As an agricultural educator, I have
experienced many phone calls from barn workers very unhappy with both
the treatment of the animals and the manure slurry, but who feel at risk
for their positions should they complain. I have been asked to report
dumping of slurry directly into ditches to save the cost of field
application as well as inhuman treatment of cull animals.
"These reports of improper
management to the local conservation office are met with ineffective
follow-up. There appears to be no sincere political will for the system
to police itself effectively. Fines for improper practices appear to be
considered a ‘cost of doing business’ and are not sufficient to be
active enforcement of the common good."
As Gibson, Tait, Pip and others tell
their stories, a theme emerges: it’s citizens who are having to keep
the hog industry and its government benefactors honest. Over and over
again, it’s the hogwatchers who have found dangerous flaws in
applications already greenlighted by the government’s technical review
committees (TRCs) and even caught industry cheaters redhanded.
There was the video by a farmer named
Charles Beer of an earthen manure storage (EMS) lagoon under
construction in the RM of Grandview. Despite inspections by
Conservation, Beer’s video showed that the earthen lining of the EMS
was being built with flagrant disregard for leakproofing regulations out
of powder-dry stubble and topsoil, instead of moist, compactible clay.
When heavy rainfall came, Tait tells me, "there wasn’t one speck
of water in the bottom of that earthen lagoon. Not one cupfull. It had
all leaked right through."
There’s the spectacular steel manure
storage tank break near MacGregor in July of 2002. Four million litres
of pig manure slurry escaped, contaminating nearby wells. "Not only
did this thing burst," says Tait, "but the province didn’t
even know it was there, because it had been built pre-1998. It was a
salvaged tank out of the United States — never should have been put
there. It was just a time bomb."
There was a four-million litre spill near
Morden in 2000, word of which only leaked out three years later. After a
surface mop-up operation, Manitoba Conservation had privately declared
the damage fixed without testing the area for contamination. But serious
contamination of local waterways could have occurred, Brandon University
biologist Bill Paton said when the news broke in 2003, noting that hog
slurry is about 100 times more toxic than raw human sewage.
"The problem," says Tait,
"is there’s been so much work done in a shoddy manner over so
many years." Yet most of it hasn’t been witnessed by Hogwatch or
taped by Charles Beer. "These things now are in operation, and if
they’re leaking or whatever they’re doing, what do you do at this
Al Beck manages Manitoba’s
Environmental Livestock Program, the department within Manitoba
Conservation that polices the wastes of the livestock industry by
enforcing the Livestock Manure and Mortalities Management Regulation (LMMMR).
Before the program was created in 1998 to enforce the new regulation,
there were just 12 people working part-time on the poop patrol, Beck
says. Today there are 17 full-timers, keeping tabs on an industry that
generates and disposes of the manure of seven or eight million pigs a
year, much of it in older manure storage facilities (like the one in
MacGregor) that have yet to be registered with the government.
Do they have what it takes to keep
Manitoba clean? I ask Beck.
"I actually quite firmly believe . .
. we're in pretty good control on that," he answers, "not to
say there may not be accidents happening or the odd bad actor that'll
we'll have to encounter and deal with . . ." When they do, Beck
says they can invoke the Environment Act — "and there the fines
are substantial: $50,000 for a first offence for an individual, $500,000
for a corporation." Further offenses cost $100,000 and $1 million,
respectively, he adds.
But when I check the province’s online
enforcement record, which dates back to 1998, the annual tab for all
convictions combined has averaged just $30,000 — about $600 an offense.
When I look up the Environment Act, I see why: the fines Beck has cited
Ruth Pryzner, an animal farmer who was
acclaimed to the Council of the RM of Daly on a predominantly hogwatcher
platform, doesn’t share Beck’s confidence in the system. Years of
tussling with it have convinced her it’s as leaky as the lagoons
it’s supposed to be protecting us from. When I present her with a few
regulations that look pretty good to me, a naïve observer, she sees a
worm in almost every one of them.
Take the synthetic liners that are
sometimes required for EMSs in sensitive areas — near an aquifer, for
example. They’re actually quite fragile during manure removal, Pryzner
points out, and they’re not impermeable either. The Conservation
department has told her that the permitted drip level into the earth and
groundwater is too slow to worry about. But that seems shortsighted to
Pryzner. "We are needing to maintain potable water supplies
for future generations don't you think? Not just what's going to be
available in the next 25 years."
The best image I can think of to convey
the way mega hog-barn resisters see the industry is a supersized syringe
injected into the rural heartland, extracting the greatest value for the
least investment, and leaving all wastes behind.
While a favourite buzzword that the
industry and its government boosters use to describe itself is
"value-added" (spinoff jobs and services, less rural
depopulation), the syringe model connotes a different buzzword:
— strip mining, not sustainable development.
"Corporations . . . are simply not,
by their design or motivation, rural development agencies," Brandon
University economist Joe Dolecki argued at a conditional use hearing for
a mega hog barn in 2002. "They do not exist to ‘help’ the rural
communities in which they locate, but rather to ‘help themselves’ to
the resources of those rural communities . . ."
"If you want to see how
globalization is progressing," the National Farmers Union put it to
the Manitoba government this April, "just come out to rural
I ask Fred Tait, who was national vice
president of the NFU until last year, to explain why the so-called
"corporatization," "vertical integration" and
"consolidation" of the hog sector is such a bad thing.
Tait answers that in the good old days,
"the value of the hogs came back to the farmer. And sometimes it
was positive, and sometimes it was negative, but whatever it was, it
came back to the community and became part of that community’s
But in the new hog economy, corporations
like Maple Leaf buy up the competition to consolidate a lock on the
market that is not only "horizontal" (Maple Leaf now owns most
of Manitoba’s meatpacking capacity), but "vertical." In
1999, Maple Leaf acquired the largest feed company in Western Canada and
one of the largest hog producers, Elite Swine. Elite’s mega barns
house 125,000 sows, enough to bring two and a half million pigs to
market every year.
"Whatever profit there is to be
taken out of this whole structure, they take it," says Tait of the
global fraternity of vertically integrated pork corporations. "The
only thing that is left for the local people is the few jobs that are
available in the barn." And judging by the turnover Tait sees,
they’re slim pickings.
Eva Pip is no fan either of the corporate
takeover. In her presentation to the Manitoba government-appointed
Livestock Stewardship Panel in 2000, Pip said:
"The small family farm is hurt the
most. The small producer had minimized adverse environmental impacts
because livestock were reasonably spaced and the amount of waste caused
only small localized problems, at worst. This small producer is now
squeezed out by the mega-operations, against which he cannot
Pip heaped scorn on the industry’s PR
"How ironic that a recent television
commercial produced by the pork industry drives home this point. We see
a pretty picture of contented pigs, unrestrained and outdoors in the
sunshine, while a cute little girl is helping to distribute the pigs’
food with her own adorable hands. Yet this is the very producer that the
hog industry is destroying. . . .Why does the industry not show its real
face — the sows confined in tight barren crates, standing on their own
filth, breathing noxious fumes, with the only sunlight they will ever
see being the time when they are crammed into the transports to go to
slaughter? Would a little girl be helping to feed thousands of pigs in
such a place? It would be child abuse to let a child inside such a
A Gathering Threat
This January, the world’s largest
public health organization joined the growing number of medical bodies
— the Canadian Medical Association included — who are calling for a
moratorium on mega hog barns. In its 1134-word resolution, the American
Public Health Association cited a host of serious social, environmental
and medical concerns.
Hailing the resolution, Robert Lawrence,
M.D., Director of The Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins
Bloomberg School of Public Health, wrote: "Factory farms make their
workers sick, pollute the environment, and pose serious public health
risks to people living nearby." The system "needs [a] major
overhaul, if not elimination."
Among the leading medical worries is
antibiotic resistance. The routine feeding of antibiotics to confined
animals breeds antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can be transmitted to
humans in food, water and even airborne barn dust.
In 1999, the intensive hog operations of
Malaysia were stricken by a new virus called "Nipah."
Encephalitis broke out among hog workers. Over a hundred died, including
an abbatoir worker in Singapore.
Antibiotics in animal feed have been
banned in Sweden and Denmark and (partially) throughout the European
Union. When Denmark prohibited using avoparcin in 1995, bacterial
resistance to the drug plummetted from 73 percent to five percent by
Eva Pip is well acquainted with the
research and, through her travels studying water around the province,
with the health complaints of people who live near our mega hog barns.
In the "numerous, numerous studies" that have been done
elsewhere, she says, "the range of symptoms that have been
documented ranges all the way from headache and nausea and dizziness,
all the way to much more severe and frequent attacks of asthma and
bronchitis, much more frequent susceptibility to colds and other kinds
of respiratory illnesses."
Pip says that while it’s not possible
to prove cause and effect in Manitoba without controlled studies,
"you know when it comes down to the bottom line, if you can smell
it, then it’s affecting you."
I ask her how the provincial government
can encourage the expansion of the mega hog barn industry in the face of
such evidence? Because, she says with by now familiar irony,
"that’s not science, because that wasn’t done in Manitoba.
Somehow Manitobans are unique and different, you see."
But why couldn’t we be
"Because all our farm practices are
the same as what they have been doing in those other places. And in many
cases those are the exact same operators that are no longer able to do
that there. In the Netherlands, for example, where now virtually 100
percent of their groundwater is polluted, for years now the Dutch
government had been paying them to get out of the business. And so what
happens? ‘Come to Manitoba.’"
The Screaming of the
Every day in Manitoba over 10,000
bellowing hogs are shuttled through high-speed "disassembly
lines" and electrically stunned, stabbed, bled, scalded and
butchered. Nearly as many are trucked to other provinces or states to be
slaughtered or fattened there. The vast majority spend their five or six
month existence in large, supercrowded pens on strawless, slatted
concrete floors, above an open river of their own wastes. Their tails,
"needle teeth" and testicles are clipped or cut off (without
anaesthetic) to limit the damage they could do to each other under such
stressful confinement. Their parents live in solitary confinement in
tight, barren sow and boar "crates" for all or most days of
their three or four years of reproductive life; then they are culled, if
they haven’t died first.
"It’s horrible. Just the
smell just about knocks you over, and the noise," says Eva Pip
describing her visit to an Interlake mega hog barn about five years ago.
"A screaming sow ," she tells me, "can generate more than
a hundred decibels — a single sow. . . .When you have all those
animals concentrated there in a building like that, it’s
terrible." Hundreds of "organic compounds that it’s just not
healthy to be breathing" fill the animals lungs and noses.
Occupational health experts advise barn workers to wear protective masks
(many don’t and suffer a high rate of illness for it), but the pigs
just have to put up with it, 24/7.
"You can see that [the sows have]
given up pretty well, that they’re just waiting to die," says
Pip. "Or they’re just constantly biting the bars or making
repetitive, agitated movements. It looks like something out of a horror
When I ask Minister of Agriculture Rosann
Wowchuk if her government intends to ban or phase out sow stalls as they
have in the European Union, she replies tightly: "Not at this
time." It’s up to the market, she says.
The Other, Other White
The cliché in modern farming is
"get big, or get out."
On the farm his father built, Ian Smith
is still in and (by today’s standards) small, raising pigs the
old-fashioned way with fresh air, group housing and straw — lots of
straw. His family’s been doing it that way near Argyle, Manitoba since
This winter Smith passed the inspection
of the Winnipeg Humane Society and became one of five farmers in the
province producing "WHS Certified" humane pork. The move
attracted a few more customers to the home delivery side of Smith’s
roughly 400-hog per year business.
A couple years ago, when the Humane
Society rolled out its WHS Certified pork with a Pepsi Challenge-style
taste test, "even the best chefs in Winnipeg could distinguish,
blindfolded, the difference between the two products," Fred Tait
recounts. "I had reporters telling me ‘if I could get this
product that’s all I would buy.’"
Well, they can get the product
(see "Where to buy
kinder cuts of pork"). Like certified-organic pork,
which is produced under comparably humane standards, WHS Certified pork
has found its way into several Manitoba outlets. But market share is
only a shadow of what it could be, in the view of Vicki Burns, Executive
Director of the Humane Society, and John Youngman, Chair of the WHS’s
Farm Animal Welfare Committee.
"Part of the problem," explains
Burns, "is that we do not have a meat broker."
Not many stores are interested in buying
meat directly from a farmer, especially if it comes in 80-pound halves,
like Ian Smith’s does.
"Without the meat being readily
available, I think consumers do not remember to ask for it," Burns
writes in an email exchange. "And the fact that there are no
industry/government programs (incentives, support, etc.) to help farmers
like ours adds to the problem," writes Youngman.
Frustrated by his attempts to find a
retailer, Smith says "the public has to step up to the plate and
say we want this product." And so, he adds, should the government
and the Manitoba Pork Council (MPC), which is funded by an 80-cent levy,
or "check-off," on all the hogs he and other Manitoba
But neither are interested.
"We do not market or promote any
specific production style or choice to consumers, retailers or
wholesalers," writes Ted Muir, General Manager of MPC, when I ask
if MPC would help farmers like Smith grow a niche pork industry.
I ask Wowchuk the same question.
"It’s a product that’s out there that’s available," she
replies. "I have a poster up in my office of all the products that
are available. It’s not labelled one way or the other. . . .We don’t
promote a different kind of pork either or a different kind of
chicken." And yet, she adds, "we work with the producers when
they have an idea of what they want to market."
But not this idea, apparently.
"Several months ago," Burns
informs me, "I was contacted by one of our WHS hog farmers who
wanted to market his meat to provincial institutions like the U of M,
hospitals, etc. I contacted Minister Wowchuk's office requesting a
meeting with her and several of our farmers who wanted help to get
Manitoba meat on Manitoba shelves. I am still waiting for a response to
that request. In my experience, the provincial government has not been
helpful at all in trying to encourage the humane labelled meat
Fred Tait had warned me that any industry
that might threaten the success of Manitoba’s mega hog barns
"would cause the provincial government to get a little nervous,
because they have underwritten the loans on these barns." And Maple
Leaf Foods, whose hammer lock on the industry was secured by Gary
Doer’s promise to Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain not to reinstate the
selling monopoly (single-desk selling) of the province’s hog
producers, would not be pleased either. "If Michael McCain felt
that his market share was being threatened by some sort of an upstart
industry in humane labelling," Tait says, "I think the phones
would ring again."
"Why are we promoting this type of
industry in Manitoba?" asks Swan River farmer and NFU Regional
Coordinator, Ken Sigurdson. "We can raise hogs in a far more
environmentally friendly manner. Hooped housing [cosy, tentlike pig
shelters] and dry manure systems [straw-composted manure, like Smith
produces on his farm] use a fraction of the water and pose less of a
threat to the environment."
Which is largely how they do it in
Denmark where they still manage to vie with the United States and Canada
for the title of world’s leading pork exporter.
On a recent trip there, Cathy Holtslander,
organizer of Canada’s Beyond Factory Farming Coalition, visited the
Northern European country’s version of a confined hog operation. There
were 400 sows, but not a gestation crate or an open manure lagoon in
sight. Those are illegal in Denmark. So is antibiotic-laced feed.
But there was straw, lots of straw. And
organic pig farms — ten percent of the market. The one Holtslander
visited produces 2000 pigs a year. Her photos of it show a pasture
speckled with sows, gamboling piglets and the cosy, straw-bedded hoop
shelters they call home. And three schoolchildren visiting on a field
trip — picture-perfect for an honest commercial.
And when the farmer brings his pigs to
the national pork marketting cooperative, he is rewarded with an
"organic premium" price. In Denmark, at least, they know how
to market a different kind of pork.
Aquarian editor Syd Baumel is
the founder of eatkind. net