Book Review: ‘Wastelands’ by Corban Addison

In a David vs. Goliath story like this, you could hardly expect a more ruthless and intimidating behemoth than Smithfield. The company is not only the world’s largest pork producer, but also the owner of the world’s largest slaughterhouse. Located in Tar Heel, NC, that slaughterhouse butchers around 32,000 hogs per day. For years, workers at the Tar Heel plant were treated almost as badly as pigs: Smithfield harassed union supporters, paid workers to spy on their co-workers, and employed deputy marshals as corporate security officers. who beat and arrested workers. The company originated in Smithfield, Virginia, during the 1930s and later grew into a corporate dynasty, led successively by Joseph W. Luter Sr., Joseph W. Luter Jr., and Joseph W. Luter III. It grew by pioneering industrial methods of pig production and taking over its competitors one by one. But when the North Carolina lawsuits were filed in 2013, Smithfield Foods was no longer a US company. Shuanghui International Holdings, a Chinese corporation now known as the WH Group, had bought it the previous year, with financing from the government-owned Bank of China. The cost of raising pigs in North Carolina was about half the cost of raising them in China, and one reason, Addison explains, is that “the Chinese government doesn’t allow their pig farmers to use ponds and spray fields.” Instead, Chinese pig operations must invest in “treatment facilities” and “biological odor control systems to protect neighbors.”

Wastelands is full of memorable people. A variety of high-powered attorneys agree to take on Smithfield, working for free in exchange for a piece of any settlement. They fly private jets, employ focus groups, hire a National Geographic videographer to transmit the situation of the neighbors. Mona Lisa Wallace is the most understanding and persuasive member of the legal team, brilliant, indefatigable, raised in a small town in North Carolina with a working-class background, dedicated to using the courts to help victims of corporate misconduct. Notable among the plaintiffs is Elsie Herring, one of 15 children who left North Carolina for New York City and returned nearly 30 years later only to find herself drenched in a misty rain of manure on a walk near the house. of his family. Like Violet Branch, one of 11 children, she has lived for more than 70 years in the house where she was born, but she must put up with pollution from two waste lagoons next to her. Before the lawsuit, Branch had contacted public health officials, journalists and even the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington tirelessly, seeking relief from the stench. “Nothing is going to be done about this, nothing has been done,” she testifies bravely in court, “because the power structure in those communities is not going to allow anything to be done about it.”

Smithfield brazenly uses his power to avoid liability for the legal “nuisance” at issue in court. He threatens to leave the state if the lawsuits are successful. He spies on the lawyers and hires private investigators to keep an eye on the plaintiffs. He helps create a front group, “NC Farm Families”. It works closely with the state farm bureau, the chamber of commerce, and the Republican Party, whose members introduce bills in the legislature to shield Smithfield from liability. The smells from the company’s hog operations, boasts one Republican lawmaker, are the “smell of freedom.” The legislature’s only significant departure from pro-industry policies occurred in 1997, when it passed a temporary moratorium on new hog operations just as two were about to be built in Moore County, home to the Pinehurst resort and its legendary golf courses.

I am not vegan or vegetarian. But I believe that the pig factories described in “Wastelands” and similar CAFOs in other states are forms of systematic animal cruelty. They are crimes against nature. Pigs are intelligent and sentient creatures capable of multi-stage reasoning like dolphins and apes, with a social structure similar to that of elephants. Pigs can recognize themselves in a mirror, differentiate one person from another, remember negative experiences. And they like to be clean. Their lives in pig factories bear little resemblance to how they have been raised for millennia. They arrive as little piglets, live crammed into each other’s filth, and go off to the slaughterhouse a few months later, never having enjoyed a moment outdoors during the entire time they were in the shed. The filth of these places, from the animals that live in them and the people who live near them, truly defies words.

Corban Addison has not written a polemic about pig factories, like my previous paragraph. He has calmly assembled a legal thriller, full of energy and compassion, that deals with subjects of real importance, such as the works of John Grisham and Scott Turow. Grisham wrote the foreword to this book., and in it, he says: “Wonderfully written, impeccably researched, and told with an air of suspense few writers can manage, ‘Wastelands’ is a story I wish I had written.” I agree with Grisham. But I wish the Wastelands was a work of dystopian science fiction, not a damning portrait of how we feed ourselves now.

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