By Ken Maschhoff
Hog farmers, cattle ranchers and others in animal agriculture often get a bum rap when it comes to the environment. But the facts don’t support the bad press.
America’s farmers are the country’s original environmental stewards; for them, every day is Earth Day. So as we observe that day – April 22 – it’s good to look at the environmental improvements farmers have made over the past 50 years.
In the pork industry, for example, since the 1960s, hog farmers like me have reduced water usage by 41 percent and land usage by 78 percent. That has helped us decrease our carbon footprint by 35 percent, according to a study published in the Journal of Animal Science/Journal of Dairy Science.
Those reductions have come largely through production efficiencies, including improvements in swine genetics, housing – moving pigs indoors – manure management and feed rations. The feed efficiency of pigs, for example, has improved 33 percent over the past 50 years, according to the study cited above. That means pigs are consuming less feed for every pound of meat produced, less land is being used to grow grain, and the amount of manure produced has declined.
In our efforts to be even better environmental stewards, hog farmers in 1998 entered a “National Environmental Dialogue on Pork Production” with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One result of those talks was a new Clean Water Act rule, overhauling how the water law applies to livestock farms. It set a “zero-discharge” standard for operations, prohibiting farms from allowing manure to pollute our nation’s waterways, with violations carrying a fine of up to $37,500 a day.
America’s hog farmers also worked with EPA to develop a groundbreaking study of air emissions from livestock farms. Conducted from 2007 to 2009 by Purdue University scientists, it collected data on emissions of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide and methane to better understand the impact on the environment of raising food animals.
Those efforts have paid off. According to data from top pork-producing states, since 2000 less than 1 percent of hog farms have had manure “spills,” and most of those had no impact on water quality. Over the past decade, the majority of hog farmers have upgraded their storage facilities to ensure that manure stays where it’s stored until applied correctly to cropland. On efforts to clean the air, EPA is evaluating the data gathered under the emissions study and is using it to develop standards for farms. (Most “air” issues are about odor, which farmers continually are working to address.)
We’ve done all of that while doubling the amount of pork produced. Last year, 60,000 hog farmers produced more than 25 billion pounds of pork, compared with 50 years ago when more than 1 million farmers produced 12 billion pounds.
The facts are modern production of meat is environmentally sustainable, and the farmers who produce it among the best stewards of our environment. For that, on Earth Day – and every day – they should be celebrated, not maligned.
About the author: Ken Maschhoff is a hog farmer from Carlyle, Ill., and president of the National Pork Producers Council. For more information about the pork industry’s environmental stewardship, visit www.porkcares.org.