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Industrial Agriculture


Most of America’s farmland today is dominated by industrial agriculture – a system that was developed in the decades after World War II. It includes:

industrialized production of livestock, poultry, fish, and crops. The methods of industrial agriculture are techno-scientific, economic, and political. They include innovation in agricultural machinery and farming methods, genetic technology, techniques for achieving economies of scale in production, the creation of new markets for consumption, the application of patent protection to genetic information, and global trade.These methods are widespread in developed nations and increasingly prevalent worldwide. Most of the meat, dairy, eggs, fruits, and vegetables available in supermarkets are produced using these methods of industrial agriculture. (New World Encyclopedia, 2017).

When it began to emerge, industrial agriculture was hailed as a technological triumph that would contribute to feeding the world population, and it has enabled a decreasing number of farmers and farms to feed an increasingly large number of people. However, an increasing number of scientists and policymakers as well as farmers themselves now view industrial agriculture as a serious problem and a mistaken application to living systems. Many believe that the impact of industrial agriculture on the environment, animals, public health, and rural communities makes it an undesirable and unsustainable way to grow our food over the long term. And better, science-based methods are available.


Perspectives: Pros and Cons


Supporters of industrial agriculture identify three major benefits (New World Encyclopedia, 2017):

     1. It enables the production of cheap and plentiful food. Since the inception of industrial agriculture in the United States, agricultural productivity has steadily increased while the percentage of U.S. disposable income spent on food prepared at home has steadily decreas​ed.

     2. It provides more convenience and choice for the consumer. The industry today processes, packages, and markets food in whatever way maximizes return on investment. If consumers want fast-preparation-food, they get it. If they want more nutritious food, they get it.


     3. It provides employment opportunities on many levels, from growers to harvesters to processors to sellers.


Critics of industrial agriculture identify five major harms (New World Encyclopedia, 2017):

     1. It creates harm to the environment. Industrial agriculture, “uses huge amounts of water, energy, and industrial chemicals; increasing pollution in the arable land, useable water and atmosphere. Herbicides, insecticides, fertilizers, and animal waste products are accumulating in ground and surface waters. Many of the negative effects of industrial agriculture are remote from fields and farms. Nitrogen compounds from the Midwest, for example, travel down the Mississippi to degrade coastal fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico. But other adverse effects are showing up within agricultural production systems—for example, the rapidly developing resistance among pests is rendering our arsenal of herbicides and insecticides increasingly ineffective.


     2. It creates harm to nearby communities. Research has found the existence of substantial deterioration in human living conditions in nearby communities. These are created primarily by increased levels of air, water, and land pollution.

     3. It creates deplorable living conditions for the animals. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) or "intensive livestock operations" or "factory farms," can hold large numbers (some up to hundreds of thousands) of animals, often indoors and in very confined spaces. These animals are typically cows, hogs, turkeys, or chickens. The aim of the operation is to produce as much meat, eggs, or milk at the lowest possible cost. Food and water are supplied in place, and artificial methods are often employed to maintain animal health and improve production. In meat production, methods are also sometimes employed to control undesirable behaviors often related to stresses of being confined in restricted areas with other animals. More docile breeds are sought (with natural dominant behaviors bred out for example), physical restraints to stop interaction, such as individual cages for chickens, or animals physically modified, such as the de-beaking of chickens to reduce the harm of fighting. Weight gain is encouraged by the provision of plentiful supplies of food. Animal rights and animal welfare activists have charged that intensive animal rearing is cruel to animals.

     4. Waste distribution contaminates lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water. In 24 states in the U.S., isolated cases of groundwater contamination have been linked to CAFOs. For example, the ten million hogs in North Carolina generate 19 million tons of waste per year. The U.S. federal government acknowledges the waste disposal issue and requires that animal waste be stored in lagoons. These lagoons can be as large as 7.5 acres. Lagoons not protected with an impermeable liner can leak waste into groundwater under some conditions, as can runoff from manure spread back onto fields as fertilizer in the case of an unforeseen heavy rainfall. A lagoon that burst in 1995 released 25 million gallons of nitrous sludge in North Carolina's New River. The spill allegedly killed eight to ten million fish.

     5. The large concentration of animals, animal waste, and dead animals in a small space poses concerns for human health. One particular problem with farms on which animals are intensively reared is the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Because large numbers of animals are confined in a small space, any disease would spread quickly, and so antibiotics are used preventively. A small percentage of bacteria are not killed by the drugs, which may infect human beings if it becomes airborne.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), farms on which animals are intensively reared can cause adverse health reactions in farm workers. Workers may develop acute and chronic lung disease and musculoskeletal injuries and may catch infections that transmit from animals to human beings. The CDC reports that chemical, bacterial, and viral compounds from animal waste may travel in the soil and water. Residents near such farms report nuisances such as unpleasant smells and flies, as well as adverse health effects.

The CDC has identified a number of pollutants associated with the discharge of animal waste into rivers and lakes, and into the air. The use of antibiotics may create antibiotic-resistant pathogens; parasites, bacteria, and viruses may be spread; ammonia, nitrogen, and phosphorus can reduce oxygen in surface waters and contaminate drinking water; pesticides and hormones may cause hormone-related changes in fish; animal feed and feathers may stunt the growth of desirable plants in surface waters and provide nutrients to disease-causing micro-organisms; trace elements such as arsenic and copper, which are harmful to human health, may contaminate surface waters.


Industrial Agriculture and Hog Farming in Brunswick County


“The eastern part of North Carolina is covered with shit.” Steve Wing, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. (Quoted in Sara Peach, “What to Do About Pig Poop? North Carolina Fights a Rising Tide.” National Geographic, October 30, 2014. 

Historically, textile, apparel, and furniture manufacturing have represented key economic sectors of the North Carolina economy. However, by the early 1990s, these sectors were declining. Much manufacturing work was shifted to other countries (e.g., Mexico, in Central America, in Asia) with substantially lower labor costs and then imported to the United States. Companies sought to save money by re-organizing the workforce and automating production, but by the year 2000 employment in these traditional industries had sharply decreased (Taplin, 2012).

While these traditional manufacturing jobs were disappearing from cities and small towns, rural North Carolina was undergoing an agricultural revolution in which mass production techniques were brought to areas such as hog farming and poultry processing. By the late 1990s, North Carolina had become the second largest hog producer in the country (after Iowa) and third largest poultry producer. Most of these farms had become located in the eastern part of the state (particularly in the counties of Duplin, Sampson, Bladen, and Robeson - all upstream from Brunswick County). Some mega-farms employ hundreds or even thousands of workers and altogether they process about 10 million hogs and 200 million chickens each year.

In the industrial system of meat production, meat animals are prepared for slaughter at large-scale facilities called CAFOs (concentrated-animal-feeding-operations), where their mobility is restricted and they are fed a high-calorie, grain-based diet, often supplemented with antibiotics and hormones, to maximize their weight gain. Their waste is concentrated and becomes an environmental problem, not the convenient source of fertilizer that manure can be for more diverse, less massively scaled farms.

 In 2016, the Environmental Working Group and the Waterway Alliance, in a first-of-its-kind report and expose, identified 6,500 concentrated-animal-feeding-operations in the state of North Carolina. The animal waste from hogs is about 10 billion gallons annually – enough to fill 15,000 olympic-size swimming pools. Chickens add about 2 million gallons of dry fecal waste annually. Duplin and Sampson Counties account for 40 percent of North Carolina’s wet animal waste and 18 percent of dry animal waste each year.


To discharge this waste, farmers in North Carolina use a standard practice called the lagoon and spray field system. They flush feces and urine from barns into open-air pits called lagoons, which turn the color of Pepto-Bismol when pink-colored bacteria colonize the waste. To keep the lagoons from overflowing, farmers spray liquid manure on their fields nearby. There are some rules that must be followed. To avoid polluting streams and rivers with lagoon waste farmers are not allowed to spray waste on fields when it's raining, for example, or on windy days when the mist could blow into nearby water bodies. However, this does not cover all of the ways that the waste can enter waterways, and it has been widely reported that the industry routinely breaks these rules.


There are more than 4,100 of these lagoons in the state and they cover more than 6,800 acres. Many are located in low-lying spots near bodies of water.They are really open dumps for filth, and they send disease-causing microbes and toxic chemicals into surface water and air (Environmental Working Group and Waterway Alliance, 2017)..

In 2015, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources published a wide-ranging study showing elevated levels of both nitrates and ammonia in waterways near hog CAFOs in eastern North Carolina. Researchers behind the three year USGS/DENR study found that "animal feeding operations have measureable effects on stream water quality in many agricultural watersheds in the North Carolina Coastal Plain" with nearly 60 percent of the watersheds where CAFOs are located having "distinct differences in water quality reflecting swine and/or poultry manure effects. Recent studies by the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, the University of Michigan, and Johns Hopkins University have all linked fecal material in waterways to hog operations. In addition the Environmental Working Group (2016) reports that scientific studies have discovered:

          * High-level nitrates in waterways that can kill off fish, and when ingested through contaminated drinking water can cause the potentially fatal "blue baby syndrome" in infants and other illnesses in humans. Hog manure pits also contain a mix of dangerous pathogens, like Salmonella and pharmaceuticals, among many other agents that can leach into surface water sources.

          * Beyond the threat to water, the air in the communities next to many of these CAFOs is often polluted. The odor from the hog manure stored in these pits, a mix between rotten eggs and ammonia, regularly drifts into adjacent neighborhoods and homes, forcing residents to cover their mouths and noses with masks when outside. Studies, including one from researchers with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Michigan, found the ammonia released into the air from swine CAFOs in North Carolina "is potentially hazardous for nearby human populations at community locations, particularly homes and schools.

          * The air pollution from CAFOs like those in North Carolina can elevate the risks for respiratory problems, eye and nose irritation, fatigue, reduced immune function, high blood pressure, diarrhea, and increased mental stress for those who live and work near these animal feeding operations (Chapman and Torres, 2013). Other serious health problems include the growing threat of superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics. According to the Pew Charitable Trust's Antibiotic Resistance Project, roughly 70 percent of all antibiotics in the U.S. are used on hogs, chickens and cattle to make them grow faster. Estimates show farm animals in North Carolina receive more antibiotics than all Americans combined.

Despite this multitude of very serious problems, CAFOs in North Carolina have been given almost free reign to run their companies as they see fit and to face very little oversight. Due to a budget that has been continually slashed for more than a decade and severe staff shortages, inspectors from the North Carolina Division of Environmental Quality visit each farm just once a year. Most of the time, they review paperwork the contract grower has already prepared. They have never shut down a farm or revoked a permit despite evidence of violation of regulations.

In early 2017, the Republican-controlled North Carolina House of Representatives voted to place a cap on the amount of damages that citizens could recoup against hog CAFOs. Governor Roy Cooper vetoed it. But, House representatives overrode the veto. The Environmental Working Group’s Ken Cook (quoted in Formuzis, 2017) responded:

Click on the button for a video

trailer by

For most Americans, it’s stomach-turning to imagine having your home blanketed with hog feces and the dangerous bacteria it carries, but that’s just a normal day in the lives of many North Carolinians who happen to live near factory farms.

“The author of the bill is state Rep. Jimmy Dixon, whose district is at the epicenter of North Carolina's hog-raising industry and who has taken $115,000 in campaign contributions from the pork industry over his career. During a hearing, he callously downplayed the impact on the communities assaulted by the pollution and stench from factory farms. “Is there some odor?" asked Dixon. "Yes. But I would like you to close your eyes and imagine how ham and sausage and eggs and fried chicken smell” (Formuzis, 2017).

What Can Be Done?

The starting points for doing something about the multiple harms created by industrial agriculture and hog farming in eastern North Carolina is the same as with all of the environmental issues covered in this section of the website:

  • Become more knowledgeable about this issue.


  • Discuss this issue with others; learn from them and help them learn from you.


  • Join forces with groups and organizations that are knowledgeable about environmental issues in general (BEAT!) and about this issue in particular. Organizations have greater access to scientific expertise, have larger budgets, have more contacts with the media, and have the force of combining many voices into one.


  • Advocate for clean water; safer, healthier, smaller CAFO facilities; and sound regulations for CAFOs that are strictly enforced. Urge elected officials (as a start) to take the lead in phasing out all CAFOs located in the 100-year floodplain. The governor and the state legislature are the key agents in determining whether CAFOs will continue to be allowed to cause harm or whether public health and safety will be prioritized.


  • Advocate for sustainable agriculture. Sustainable agriculture has three main goals: environmental stewardship, farm profitability, and healthy and prosperous farming communities. Organic farming, which combines traditional farming practices and naturally occurring biological processes with scientific knowledge but highly limited modern technology is one example of a more sustainable approach.


  • Examine the values and political position on this issue of candidates running for political office. Federal support for a strong Environmental Protection Agency is very important. Support for a meaningful Department of Environmental Quality in North Carolina is very important. Support by North Carolina’s governor and state legislature for taking a scientific approach to consideration of issues related to industrial agriculture is absolutely critical. Look for candidates that emphasize the importance of environmental impact in making decisions about what to do or not do.




Dan Chapman and Kristina Torres. 2013 “Risks, Benefits Seen in Bigger Hog Farms.”

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 30.


Environmental Working Group and Waterkeeper Alliance. 2016 “Exposing Fields of Filth.”

Alex Formuzis. 2017 “Study: Fecal Bacteria from N.C. Hog Farms Infects Nearby Homes.” Environmental Working Group, May 11.


New World Encyclopedia. 2017 "Industrial Agriculture."


Sara Peach. 2014 “What to Do About Pig Poop? North Carolina Fights a Rising Tide.” National Geographic, October 30.


Ian M. Taplin. 2012 “The Changing North Carolina Workplace.” Sociation Today 10:

Read and See More About Industrial Agriculture and Hog Farming

Sara Peach. 2014 “What to Do About Pig Poop? North Carolina Fights a Rising Tide.”​ (go to directly; does not load)

     The significant contribution of hog waste to air and water pollution in (especially eastern) North Carolina and the declining number of inspections since 2013.

Tom Philpott. 2017 “North Carolina Republicans Are Trying to Keep Residents From Suing Hog Farms.”

     The contribution of hog farms to environmental waste and air pollution.

Julia Kravchenko. 2016 “The Effects of Hog Farms Waste on Human Health.”

     Presentation-style documentation of effects of hog waste on air, land, ground water, and surface water.

Kate Jenkins. 2015 "Industrial Hog Farming and Environmental Racism."

     Health effects of living in an environment steeped with hog waste and airborne ammonia.

(Sample Scholarly article) Elanor Starmer. 2017 "Environmental and Health Problems in Livestock Production: Pollution in the Food System." The Agribusiness Accountability Initiative. (go to directly; does not load)

     Effects of the increasing number of CAFOs (confined animals feeding operations).

(Video) Daniel Anderson. “The Impact of Factory Farming on the Environment in North Carolina.” (go to directly; does not load)

     Video and presentation of Smithfield Farm, the harms of hog farms, and the relationship to environmental injustice.

Sample of Scholarly Journals:

  • AgBioForum

  • Applied Animal Behavior Science

  • Conservation Ecology

  • Environmental Health Perspectives

  • International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability

  • Journal of Agricultural  Economics

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