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A Perfect Storm: Climate Change, Coronavirus, and Sprawling Factory Farms

FIC Staff | August 5, 2020

Before the start of the 2020 hurricane season, researchers predicted that this year would be busier than normal. The increasing frequency and intensity of hurricanes due to climate change disproportionately impact vulnerable populations, especially lower-income communities and communities of color. Confounding the problem, these communities also face disproportionate exposure to industrial pollution, including the impacts of the factory farming system. And as storms touch down this year, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a striking impact on our food system already, stands to exacerbate these disparities even more, creating a perfect storm for those most vulnerable.

Climate Change & Inequities 

Researchers point to unusually high ocean temperatures, caused by climate change, as what’s fueling storm intensity and extending the duration of the storm season. While this will undoubtedly have a wide range of impacts on all coastal communities, as a result of systemic racism and inequality, lower-income communities and communities of color bear the brunt of climate change impacts.

In 2018, Hurricane Florence made this fact shockingly clear. As the storm brought record flooding and destroyed homes and businesses, families facing poverty and the challenge of recovering from disaster struggled to rebuild. In North Carolina, for example, 19 of the 20 poorest counties in the state as of 2016 were located in the eastern region. A history of redlining and housing discrimination in these same eastern counties has pushed the Black, Latinx, and indigenous communities into the flood plains, where they are more likely to suffer costly impacts from flooding and storm damage. Following Florence, nearly 300,000 people reported not having enough food to eat each night. Storms such as Florence and Hurricane Harvey in Houston made a clear statement that climate change is a threat multiplier in vulnerable communities, exacerbating poverty, food insecurity, housing inequities, and other challenges.

Climate Change & Industrial Agriculture: Poultry and Hog Farms 

FIC has covered the impacts of coastal flooding in areas with a concentration of factory farms, such as North Carolina, and the dangers of overflowing hog manure in previous blogs, but the continued unrestrained development of factory farms is posing new environmental concerns. In recent years, areas where hog and poultry CAFOs are already densely packed (which disproportionately tend to be located in low-income communities and communities of color) are seeing rapid construction and expansion. For example, the Delmarva Peninsula in Maryland added at least 400 poultry CAFOs in the last five years, increasing its chicken production by over half a billion pounds per year. Similarly in North Carolina, an investigation released by Environmental Working Group and Waterkeepers Alliance found that between 2008 and 2016 an average of 60 new large chicken farms were added in NC per year, but just between 2016 and 2018 that number had accelerated to an average of 120 new farms per year. This rapid expansion adds hundreds of thousands more chickens into areas already saturated with factory farms. Poultry waste is generally stored dry, in large piles, until it can be applied to fields, and is very high in nutrients including nitrogen and phosphorus. These nutrients can cause toxic algal blooms and water contamination if excess runoff gets into rivers, lakes, and drinking water. These impacts have been especially acute in the Delmarva Peninsula. The threat of increased storms provides a risky scenario for all this piled up chicken waste, as heavy rains can easily lead to increased nutrient runoff.

Food Workers at the Intersection of Climate Change, COVID-19 & Industrial Agriculture

The presence of the burgeoning hog and poultry industry in the path of major storms brings another layer of complexity to hurricane season in 2020 as well – coronavirus outbreaks tied to processing plants. Across the nation, metropolitan areas have much higher total case numbers, but when looking at per-capita rates in May 2020 for instance, “Of the 25 rural counties with the highest per capita case rates, 20 have a meatpacking plant or prison where the virus took hold and spread with abandon, then leaped into the community when workers took it home.” This is true in North Carolina where eastern counties that are home to the hog and poultry industry have some of the highest per-capita COVID-19 case numbers in the state, like near Smithfield plant in Tar Heel, NC. Meat processing plants across the nation have experienced major outbreaks and workers have brought to the surface complaints that companies’ failures to follow CDC guidance at their processing facility has had a discriminatory impact on the workforce that is predominately Black, Latinx, and Asian – where 87 percent of workers infected by the virus are from communities of color.

Another vulnerable population at the intersection of climate change, COVID-19 and industrial agriculture, are farmworkers. Farmworkers have experienced a lack of COVID-19 protections, living and functioning in close quarters, and now must prepare for and battle the hurricane season ahead.

Disaster Response in the midst of the “Perfect Storm”

One marked difference coronavirus has made already this year is limiting access to a safe refuge during a storm. As Isaias pushed through impacted counties in NC for example, officials urged citizens to avoid turning to public shelters unless as a last resort, and stay with relatives or pay for hotel rooms instead. For those with no other option, the state committed to conducting symptom screening, but social distancing in shelter facilities would have been a major challenge. In communities that are still trying to recover from Florence in 2018, especially in low-income communities facing financial limitations, many worry that this year families may choose not to heed evacuation notices as they may not have anywhere to go, or may fear contracting coronavirus if they do.

In 2020 so far, South Texas and Hawaii have already been impacted by hurricanes and this week the East Coast has met the challenge of its first hurricane landfall. As future storms take shape, residents and communities impacted will begin to pick up the pieces from Isaias and continue to reckon with the injustice that existed before the storm’s arrival, thrown into sharp relief by the intersection of climate change, environmental injustice in industrial agriculture, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

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