It has been unsurprising to see local headlines probing the "sustainable" manure-to-biochar operations at Hawai'i's only large factory farm, Waialua Fresh. When it comes to industrial animal agriculture, I adhere to the motto "the greener the claims, the redder the flags." This wisdom also holds true for animal raising claims. Companies use such claims on animal product packaging labels, websites, and advertisements because consumers are willing to pay more for products that appear to align with their values. In actuality, these are greenwashing or humane-washing tactics, and such claims are often utterly meaningless.
Take the largest words on Waialua Fresh's egg cartons for example – "cage free." Waialua Fresh's website states that "it's [sic] solar arrays double as cage free shelter for the hens," and "not to mention, all of our chickens are cage-free." An average consumer might imagine "cage free" means the chickens are not only not in battery cages, but are also able to engage in their natural behaviors on open pasture, the sun on their feathers and trade winds at their backs. Not giving a cluck.
But Waialua Fresh's hens live with 50,000 others in a confined building, a giant cage disturbingly rebranded as "shelter."
In terms of Waialua Fresh's green claims, its "state of the art" facility boasts many features. It is fully powered by solar arrays; it (now) turns all its waste into biochar, a soil amending fertilizer; it is carbon neutral; it has an independent water well. There is, notably, zero runoff. All of this is fantastic considering Waialua Fresh's far from "green" factory farm counterparts on the mainland.
Yet for all these "sustainable" operations, Waialua Fresh is still missing one massive variable in its attempt to mitigate Hawai'i's food insecurity—its reliance on imported feed. To genuinely reduce "the amount of resources depleted by shipping eggs from the mainland," local growers would have to use approximately 5,000 acres of land and immense water inputs to grow enough (likely GMO) crops for the one million chickens that Waialua Fresh hopes to one day house.
Factory farms are anathema to planetary health.GHG emissions from industrial animal agriculture are a significant anthropogenic driver of climate change. Feed production has catastrophic environmental consequences because of the land and water inputs required to grow food for billions of animals. These billions of animals create 1.2 to 1.37 billion tons of manure per year. The manure management "system" is haunting. Manure lagoons can contain antibiotics, pathogens, and other animal feed additives that can pollute the groundwater during a storage leak or adverse weather event. These lagoons pollute the air with ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, methane, and "fecal particulate matter." This implicates environmental justice because companies intentionally build factory farms near impoverished communities, and pollutants sicken residents. (Imagine waking each morning to your neighbor spraying hog shit on their lawn. But, like, a really big lawn, and industrial amounts of shit.)
Our disparate legal treatment of species screams volumes about our ability to justify immense cruelty. We've seen the results of animal agriculture on supermarket shelves. Earlier this year, egg prices increased as availability nearly disappeared. Why were factory farms not the intuitive solution to increasing the egg supply? Because factory farms were a main driver behind the egg "crisis." Avian influenza (H5N1) killed over 50 million chickens, primarily indirectly due to mass culling, often by "ventilation shutdown." Rose Acre Farms, one of Waialua Fresh's mainland owners, lost 1.5 million hens in one of its Iowa facilities. Viruses love a packed "shelter" full of poultry; intensive animal confinement creates the perfect conditions for viruses to thrive. Widespread animal illness with the potential for zoonotic disease to jump to humans? That's not something that we've ever experienced or need to worry about. Shh.
Our islands' chickens may have been spared from this strain of the virus, but the mainland's bird flu outbreak should serve as cautionary, and we should not expect to create the same conditions and have different results.
Why did we let mainland corporations convince us that the production of eggs– eggs that rely on massive quantities of imported feed–was going to help solve our food insecurity? I mean, I'll say it—eggs are really, really small. I don't know how long we'll survive following another major supply chain interruption if eggs are our pièce de résistance.
As we endeavor towards food security in Hawai'i, we must avoid the devastating incidents that have resulted from the proliferation of factory farms as the main source of our nation's slaughter-based animal products. Factory farms do not promote the values we ought to promote locally—such as ecological stewardship and connections between smaller farms with the communities they feed.
I would encourage the public to visit Sweet Land Farm, to watch keiki feeding goats, and observe how everyone can wander the premises unsupervised. Waialua Fresh has yet to allow the public to tour its facilities, despite early statements that it would offer such tours. As you leave Sweet Land, you'll only be able to glance at Waialua Fresh's ultra-green facility from afar, its gleaming metal structures, nary a chicken in sight.
Jennifer Meleana Hee is a student at the University of Hawai'i William S. Richardson School of Law.
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