A documentary from the UK points to the vertical integration of the pork industry as the cause of numerous economic, environmental and health woes worldwide. Taxpayers, it says, contribute to this process whether they realize it or not.

The film, Pig Business, chronicles the consolidation of pig production from small farms into a handful of large agribusinesses.

“During the 90s, large scale meat processors bought up livestock farms. This…allowed them to control the whole process, from raising to packaging,” Tracy Worcester, the film’s director, explains. In her job as an ecologist, the more Worcester learned about the impact of this consolidation, the more it interested her. She decided to make a documentary chronicling the origins of the process and its effect on the world today.

The Impact of Big Pig Farms

Over the past few decades in America, the expansion of pig packing companies into the production sector pushed thousands of small farmers out of the market. This phenomenon spread to European countries at the beginning of the 21st century, when regulations in North Carolina, a hub for pig farming, prohibited processors from buying livestock farms and made certain environmental practices, such as spraying pig waste from lagoons onto fields, a punishable offence. These laws made pig farming abroad a more attractive option for pig producers, many of whom expanded overseas, where they began to buy up local farms in European countries.

Lost livelihoods are just one of the many negative consequences of industrial pig farming that the film highlights.

Factory farms release hundreds of harmful toxins into the environment. Pig waste, which contains high levels of nitrogen, is collected in lagoons and used to fertilize surrounding fields, where it then runs into the local water supply. Other harmful chemicals are released by sprays used to sanitize facilities.

“A pretty large percentage of people working in these facilities will come down with chronic sinus infections, asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory diseases that are related to the mixture they’re breathing in,” says Dr. David Wallinga of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, an American organization that works to promote fair trade policies and high standards for farming practices.

This mixture is one Wallinga refers to as a “toxic brew.” “There’s so many volatile gases mixed in with dust, bacteria, antibiotics…in a very very complex mixture of some three or even four hundred different substances. So that’s what one is exposing a neighbor or a family or child to,” he says. 

The film also describes the toll these chemicals take on the environment. Neighbors of production facilities in Poland have noticed plants and animals beginning to die off after a hog factory begins operation.

The environmental impact also extends to South America, where harvesting of the soya plant, which provides the majority of a pig’s diet, leads to the destruction of tropical rainforests. 

Another side-effect of industrial pig production is the growth of antibiotic-resistant strains of foodborne pathogens, according to the film. Since so many pigs are packed so tightly into a small area (sometimes 10,000 to one building), they require antibiotics to prevent the spread of disease. The heavy use of these drugs eventually leads to the formation of antibiotic-resistant forms of these bacteria, bacteria such as E. coli, Campylobacter and MRSA.

In a recent study in the Netherlands, 40 percent of Dutch pigs were found to be carrying a strain of MRSA that can pass to humans, according to Dr. Richard Young, Policy Advisor for The Soil Association, a leading British organic farming advocacy group.  

The pigs themselves also suffer from this type of production, the film reports. Hogs live in confined spaces and stand on slatted floors through which hooves slip and newborns sometimes drop. They are also often beaten by workers.

“What we have, I think, is the application of industrial systems that were designed to build cars and build machines, to living creatures,” says Tom Garrett, an animal welfare campaigner.

Funding the Operation

The film has potentially shocking news for the viewer who might think that the negative consequences of pig farming have nothing to do with him: he has contributed to this type of production simply by paying taxes.

Governments (both US and European) contribute to the expansion of pig production companies by indirectly subsidizing their endeavors. These subsidies come from taxpayer dollars.

One company receiving these subsidies is Smithfield Foods, the largest pork producer in the world, and the one the film highlights. Smithfield generates almost 12 billion dollars in sales each year and employs more than 52,000 people. It processes 27 million pigs annually in 15 different countries.

According to a 2010 report from the Global Development and Environmental Institute (GDEI), farm subsidies pushed corn and soybean prices below the cost of production, which resulted in a 15 percent reduction in operating costs and an estimated savings of 2.5 billion dollars.

In Europe, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development lent Smithfield 25 million dollars to facilitate another 75 million in loans from private banks, Worcester says.

Reaction to Large-Scale Animal Farming

The issue of the costs and benefits of large-scale animal production is a highly-debated one today.  Many are concerned that, while the cost of meat is dropping, the human, animal and environmental costs far exceed those saved by cheap production techniques.

The Humane Society of the United States recently released a video documenting the inhumane treatment of sows at pig breeding facilities.

Repercussions of large-scale meat production extend to other industries as well, including chicken and turkey production. The type of factory pig farming documented in the film was originally modeled on the technique of raising chickens en masse.

Potential Advantages of Agribusiness

Of course not everyone agrees that large-scale animal production is a negative development. Some argue that a more uniformly regulated system leads to better control of food safety. Agribusinesses, while they take jobs away from small farmers, create thousands of jobs for workers. Also, agribusinesses that spend money in their local economies, such as dairy farms in Pennsylvania, can contribute to strengthening these economies. Lastly, while its quality may be questioned, the meat produced by these companies is usually the most affordable option for consumers.

The Film’s Intended Impact

Worcester says the most important thing the average person can do to curb the negative impact of large-scale meat production is be an active consumer. She suggests buying meat raised on a small or local farm that treats its animals humanely. She also recommends asking where meat came from before buying it at supermarkets or ordering it at restaurants.

Pig Business was developed as a tool that Non-Governmental Organizations can use to illustrate the problems associated with industrial farming, says Worcester. The film was created with an eye towards raising awareness among consumers of the role they play in contributing to agribusiness, and what they can do to promote environmentally friendly, humane pig-raising processes. She hopes the film will reach a wider audience than the materials an NGO is usually able to disseminate. The film is available on YouTube.

Many celebrities, including Robert Kennedy Jr. (who appears in the film) and Paul McCartney, have endorsed the film and its message. A screening of the film, which was originally released in 2008, will be held in Washington, D.C. in early March. It will later be shown to the EU Parliament, which has requested a screening in order to raise awareness among parliamentarians about the effects of agribusiness.