By Corban Addison
Knopf 2022, 444pp
Book Review by Kathleen Tigerman, Ph.D.
Wastelands is a true legal drama that reads like a crime novel. A group of citizens in North Carolina took on Smithfield, the huge agribusiness, and the people won! This David-versus-Goliath story is a nail-biter as author Corban Addison guides readers through the generations-long injustices perpetrated by Big Ag: corporate takeover of land, suppression of legal titles, environmental degradation, unscrupulous politicians, and indifference to human suffering.
The book reveals the disaster of the corporate takeover of food production. Factory farming ignores how hogs have been raised for hundreds of years: eating waste, pasture crops and harvest gleanings, while spreading their manure as they ranged. Big Ag took these beneficial regenerative practices and separated them, resulting in two problems: inefficient feeding and piles of manure. CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) cram huge numbers of hogs into inhumane conditions where hogs stand on grated slats. Their waste falls into open cesspools the industry calls “lagoons.” Smithfield’s CAFO farmers dilute the waste with millions of gallons of local ground water then spray it on nearby fields.
North Carolina hog CAFOs were built without local zoning, while government agencies ignored people who had lived there for generations. The mainly poor, Black and Indigenous rural families had asked neighboring factory farms for relief for years, but were ignored until they took their complaints – of waste raining down, noise and disruption by dead-pig trucks hauling day or night, and stench – to court. The plaintiffs were remarkable in their perseverance and courage, and their integrity attracted an outstanding legal team, which worked without charge to them. After testimony by Smithfield, local government, hog industry insiders, and factory farmers, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs.
The book brought two surprises: one, the case was not explicitly about land theft, destruction of water resources, or collusion of the powerful against the powerless. It was about STINK – the putrid life-challenging effect on people caused by hog manure being sprayed near and in some cases on peoples’ homes. A turning point occurred when a constitutional scholar looked up a “nuisance” entry in Blackstone’s 1610’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. That year William Aldred complained that his neighbor had constructed a pigsty so close to his home that the stench made his home unlivable. Finding in Aldred’s favor, the King’s Bench said the neighbor had “no right to maintain a structure upon his own land, which, by reason of disgusting smells, loud or unusual noises, thick smoke, noxious vapors, the jarring of machinery or the unwarrantable collection of flies, renders the occupancy of adjoining property dangerous, intolerable or even uncomfortable to its tenants.” This reference to a four-hundred-year-old precedent was a turning point for one of the judges in the case.
A second surprise came when a CAFO operator testified that he tried to comply with Smithfield’s policies (and their Chinese parent company, WH Group), but he couldn’t make any money. Profits went to Smithfield, but debts were his. And he owned the manure. If he didn’t do as directed, Smithfield would not allow him enough hogs to make a living. Even when he did as Smithfield demanded, he still could not make money.
On November 24, 2020, the Fourth Circuit Court ruled there was “abundant” evidence of Smithfield’s deliberate disregard of the plaintiffs’ rights. As author Addison summarizes Judge Harvie Wilkinson’s concurring opinion:
[Smithfield’s crime] is not merely a violation of the law. It is a breach in the natural order of things . . . a wrong so pervasive [it] demands a remedy equally inclusive . . . It must respect the rights of the entire community, human and animal, together with the earth itself.
This finding of basic justice gives hope to rural communities threatened by Big Ag. As a resident of such a community, I feel deep gratitude and take solace in the court’s ruling which suggests that David still occasionally triumphs over Goliath.
July 31, 2022