Environmental concerns related to the pork industry can easily surface in any conversation, any format or in any group. These issues also can turn consumer against supplier or neighbor against neighbor.

As Americans adopt greener habits, they expect the same from others, including their food suppliers. While the pork industry has made tremendous environmental advancements in recent years, the pork chain must continue that commitment as the public increasingly takes a hard-line stance on all things environmental.

The first Responsible Pork Symposium brought forth a panel of pork industry and environmental specialists to examine the issues and discuss key challenges that face the industry.

Moderator Jon Scholl, counselor to the administrator for agricultural policy, Environmental Protection Agency, summed up industry efforts to date. “The pork industry is taking a proactive and positive approach in dealing with environmental issues that producers face.”

While he acknowledges how it’s natural to be concerned about “the things we are challenged with, it’s also important that we look for opportunities at the same time.”

Panel members included Garth Boyd, agriculture director, Camco Global; Carrie (Tengman) Keppy, environmental compliance consultant and Iowa pork producer; Charlie Lemmon, owner and facility manager, Whiteshire Hamroc; and Bill Beranek, president of the Indiana Environmental Institute.

Scholl kicked off the discussion by asking panel members to identify the biggest environmental issues facing the industry.

Challenges are Plentiful

Panel participants agreed that air emissions, odor and manure handling, and public perceptions are the issues that need the industry’s full attention and efforts. “Odor is still a big issue and air emissions challenges are looming,” Boyd says.

Beranek sees a changing environment ethic as a key challenge. “The dominant paradigm for the pork industry is to provide the highest quality pork at the lowest price to the most people. On the other side of that are people concerned with the pollution and waste. This is something that the pork industry will increasingly have to address.”

Of course, the continuous mixed signals from the government don’t help. “We need a consistent federal policy in addressing environmental concerns,” Beranek says. “It’s hard to know because at times the EPA’s pollution-protection laws seem to conflict with USDA’s laws which encourage efficient food production.”   

Others cited additional challenges. “The most important issues facing producers today are ones we have the least effect on,” Lemmon says. “Legislative and judicial issues, as well as zoning and planning, are important challenges that are beyond industry participants’ control. We can have input, but it’s a struggle to reach compromises on some of these issues.”

Working with local and national lawmakers is as much a part of raising hogs today as feeding them. Working on public perception is equally important. “Improving the public’s perception of pork production is some of the hardest work we do,” Lemmon says.

Those with a negative perspective of the industry often speak the loudest and get the most attention. Influencing public perception requires industry-wide efforts.

“Perception is reality,” Beranek warns. “The perception is that hog operations and spreading manure cause problems for the water. The perception is that pathogens come out of the hogs and that antibiotics get into the water and cause problems for people who drink the water. Those are the perceptions and you have to address them.”

Keppy agrees that public perception warrants industry time and effort. “It’s a big job we have ahead of us. We need to communicate with the public and educate them to improve our image,” she says. As a future challenge, she points to compliance with air quality and emissions regulations.

Opportunities Also Exist

The panel considered questions about renewable energy, such as: What is needed and how do we get there?

Boyd is optimistic. “There’s a real opportunity in the next 10 years for the pork industry on the renewable energy front.” He sees opportunity to create electricity or bio-methane from lagoons or digesters. He also   believes it will become economically feasible. 

The renewable energy landscape has changed dramatically, and the primary driver for that has been legislation. “In North Carolina, there is an agriculture methane bill that pays up to 18 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity produced from swine methane,” Boyd points out. “It’s a pilot project with a 50 megawatt cap, but it will take a lot of farms to reach that level.”

“With increasing pressure to move on renewable energy, there’s going to be more opportunities for subsidies coming for these types of operations,” Beranek says.

“Several states have passed bills where farmers can get paid a net metering rate,” Boyd adds. 

However, it will require negotiating with the large utilities — never an easy task. “A national methane cooperative has been discussed. It would have more ability to negotiate with the large utilities,” Boyd explains. “Producers within a cooperative would be much better off if a co-op negotiated with the utility. A single hog farm by itself doesn’t create enough electricity to make an impact.” 

Boyd points to an example. “A 10,000-pig finishing farm might create a maximum of 300 kilowatts, so that’s actually very small. Alone, it’s not the most efficient.”

Clearing the Air

Odor control and air emissions created the next question posed to the panel: How do pork producers prepare to address these areas in the future?

Odor, of course, has been on the industry’s agenda for some time, and there have been successes. “We try to treat the odor before it leaves the building,” Lemmon says. “Injecting manure instead of spreading it on fields has helped. We all have to look for the emerging technologies to continue to help us address this issue. Responsible producers are adopting things as they see fit.”  

For the odor from a fixed facility, a visual buffer will help a lot, Beranek adds.

“Windbreaks and buffers are certainly important odor control measures, but putting a building in the right location is the No.1 consideration,” Keppy contends. “The industry needs to focus on technology, management issues and building design. At the same time, use products that are available to reduce odor, ammonia and hydrogen sulfide levels.”

There are piggy-back benefits from some technologies, as Boyd points out. “With regard to the renewable energy effort, when you cover a lagoon or install an anerobic digester you also will destroy odors.”

Keppy reminds that air emissions will be increasingly important as the cooperative industry/EPA research project defines future threshold limits. “We have to have the tools in place for producers to implement if their emissions levels are over an acceptable (regulatory) threshold.”

Panelists agreed that clear and open communications with neighbors and communities is necessary to work through environmental issues and to find solutions. “The more you can share with neighbors about what you do and why, they are generally more accepting of your production system,” Lemmon says.

Beranek points to industry as an example. “The (Indianapolis) industrial community has gone through odor reduction efforts in the past 25 years. They have developed a good relationship with their neighbors, and that’s reduced complaints.”

Water: The Next Challenge

The panel agreed that water quality and usage will become increasingly important topics and require the industry’s attention and research.

“If your operation is located close to surface water, you will have to do more to protect the water than someone situated 100 miles from it,” Keppy says.

The manure issue will resurface here, too. “In certain areas with a dry soil type, you will have to manage manure more closely,” Keppy continues. “While the industry has done a good job in this area, there will continue to be challenges, especially depending on what region of the country your operation is in.”

Water use issues will vary by geographic location, but there’s no denying it will gain increasing attention. Animal agriculture uses its share of water and agriculture’s critics will see that it’s not left out of the debate.

Looking ahead, the panelists were generally optimistic. “By cleaning up our (pork industry) house and adopting environmental practices to try to do things much better, we have helped support the industry,” Boyd says.

It was agreed that more effort is needed to correct public misconceptions about pork production. Actively visiting with neighbors, having an open house and supporting the community can be beneficial.

“What people hear goes on at a hog operation and what actually goes on is usually very different,” Boyd says.

Environmental issues will continue to grow in importance — both to consumers and to lawmakers. By getting out in front of the issues, the industry will be ready for the next level — a cleaner and greener pork industry.