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Quebecers decry industrial hog expansion

Scientists, community groups frustrated with lack of government attention paid to health and environmental risks

Upstream and about an hour southwest of Montreal, manure and urine produced at a new 2,800-pig hog farm in Saint-Louis-de-Gonzague is stored in a large container, liquefied, and used as fertilizer – posing serious environmental and health risks for both rural and urban communities, according to environmentalist and author Holly Dressel.

Living in tightly-packed conditions with a near absence of light, pigs are unnecessarily fed hormones and sub-therapeutic antibiotics to make them hungry, and these enter surface and ground water supplies.

This process is standard in Quebec industrial pork production – a province home to more pigs than humans – where government subsidies to the pork industry average one dollar per pig, totalling about $9-million annually, Dressel said.

“This is unhealthy food coming from unhealthy animals that causes disease, pollutes our water, and smells terrible,” Dressel said, adding that liquefying manure is unnecessary and dangerous because it contributes to the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant diseases among humans, evidence of which the government often ignores.

Dressel, who has written several books with David Suzuki, including the recent Good News for a Change, lives in St. Chrysostome, Quebec, close to the new 2,800-pig farm.

“Every time, this is presented as a local or rural issue, or about us being ‘fussy,’ when really we’re terrified about our children’s health,” Dressel said.

Jean-Guy Vincent, the president of the union representing Quebec pork farmers (FPPQ), a subsection of the union of Quebec farmers (UPA), said he was not aware of any specific complaints over manure odour and public health. He pointed to improvements in manure-spreading technology that aim to lower odours.

“Pork producers have adopted low-beam spreaders to spread liquefied manure right into the ground…. So it helps to lower odours,” Vincent said in French.

Daniel Green, an environmental scientist with the Sierra Club, has found that in areas where there is more manure to spread than available land, cases of hospitalized gastroenteritis were 30 to 50 per cent higher than areas not in excess of manure.

These manure surplus areas were also associated with high levels of chloroform, which when inhaled can cause internal organ damage, dizziness, and headaches.

Dressel explained diseases linked to hog farms, including MRSA, a staff infection similar to flesh-eating disease, C. difficile, E. coli, and Swine flu, a species-jumping disease exacerbated by pigs’ cramped living quarters.

Dressel, whose most recent book, Who Killed the Queen?, focuses on public health care, also pointed to a study by John’s Hopkins University that found asthma rates quadruple in areas near industrial hog farms.

“You want to get porkchops from an animal who had a life and saw the sunshine. And yes, you’ll pay a little more – but you won’t be put at risk,” Dressel said, adding that to ban similar disease-spreading industry practices in the U.K., the government simply banned the use of crates which prevent female pigs from moving.

In 2002, the Canadian Media Association called for a moratorium on expansion of industrial hog production, similar to plans enacted in Iowa and North Carolina, the two largest hog-producing U.S. states.

Green has developed and distributed analytical kits with the WAVENET program, or VIVRE in French, that allow citizens to monitor total chloroform and E. coli contents in nearby water sources.

Johanne Dion, a resident of Richelieu, a town about 40 minutes southeast of Montreal, has fought the introduction of industrial pig farms in her area with a citizens’ group. The town is flanked in three directions by pig farms that spread liquid manure. One of the farms has a capacity of 5,800 pigs.

“Every time it rains, it’s a real E. coli soup,” Dion said of the Richelieu river – the biggest southern tributary of the St. Lawrence.

Dion noticed that the citizens’ group – which at one time boasted more than 600 members – has become less active after their efforts yielded few results.

“People realized there’s nothing we can do. We don’t have enough money to sue the government or the farm. The laws do not help us; they cannot help us – the laws have been written by the UPA and the FPPQ,” Dion said, adding, “The only thing we can do to fight back is to eat organic….it’s the best thing we can do.”

Dion also criticized the Quebec government’s weak environmental laws for providing no real enforcement mechanisms.

UQAM PhD student Denise Proulx, who co-authored Porcheries! La porciculture intempestive au Québec with Dion and others, said she was most concerned with the industry’s effect on water quality, antibiotic resistance, and climate change. With 63 per cent of pork exported from Quebec, she suggested agriculture practices should follow Quebec’s 2007 law on sustainable development.

Proulx urged Quebeckers to make eco-conscious consumer choices.

“I think people have to take individual action to contribute to change more rapidly…. Eat food in connection with our seasons,” she said.

Green claims that the province has ignored recommendations for sustainable and healthy agriculture presented in the Commission sur l’avenir de l’agriculture et de l’agroalimentaire québécois (CAAAQ), of which he was a part.

“We know that the Quebec government will not act aggressively with hog farms that pollute the environment,” Green said. “The fines are so small; it’s almost a license to pollute.”

But Clément Salardeaux, a spokesperson for the Quebec Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food, said that some of the suggestions from the CAAAQ report had been incorporated into government policy.

Green also emphasized the UPA’S influence in Quebec politics, and said that even areas in surplus of manure have been given additional hog permits. He said that while the CAAAQ asked for major reforms, the UPA made its interests clear to the government.

“We don’t think the government will have the political courage to change the agriculture regime in this province,” Green said, adding, “The UPA wants to keep status quo, and the Quebec government does not want to take on the UPA.”

Dressel noted that economic benefits for Quebec as often cited are reason to continue hog expansion – despite few jobs being created with industrial operations.

While Vincent estimated that a farm with 1,000 pigs would have about four to eight employees, Dressel estimated the number was closer to three or four employees for farms like the 2,800-sow farm in Saint-Louis-de-Gonzague.

Vincent also said he was not aware of any pig farms in Quebec with more than 2,000 pigs.

Dressel echoed Green’s sentiments about lax government policy, and criticized the provincial Liberal government for rescinding the moratorium on hog expansion in December 2005. The moratorium, introduced under the Parti Quebecois four years earlier, prevented expansion of the industry onto new lands.

“We have regulations in place, and they’re wonderful – my favourite part is they’re not enforced,” Dressel noted sarcastically, adding, “The whole thing is ludicrous…. There are no fines, no consequences, no means of measuring to see whether farmers are in compliance, so what is the point of having regulations?” she said.

In Quebec, municipal governments and the Ministry of Environment regulate hog farm expansion, but Dressel said the Ministry rarely denies a permit.

Lisa Bechthold and her community of Forty Mile County in Alberta successfully stopped what would have been one of the largest hog farms in Canada eight years ago. Bechthold said her community was successful in organizing through mailouts, door-to-door education programs, garnering media attention, and putting adequate pressure on local governments.

Bechthold is a consultant with Beyond Factory Farming, a group that created a community guide for citizens’ groups who are interested in fighting the introduction of an industrial farm. She advocates for the government to invest in small-scale, mixed-farming that grow vegetables and grains as well as some livestock.

“We need to change the production system, and get away from specialization and the liquid slurry system,” Bechthold said.

Dressel also explained the divisive social and political impacts that Quebec’s hog industry can have on communities.

“This is a very unpleasant industry, known to threaten and bully people, likely to get hold of your farmers who are having a rough time and say, ‘Let us spread all this poop on your farm.’ Most go bankrupt, at which point, a large company takes over the land – it’s happened so many times it’s heartbreaking.”