Climate change and environmental justice: a case study in ethics and science

A key part of the fight against climate change is to reduce greenhouse gases (GHGs). So, when a massive corporation reduces their emissions by an amount equivalent to taking 900,000 cars off the road, we should celebrate their efforts in “breaking sustainability barriers” – right? Shouldn’t we nudge other companies to follow their lead? In an era where our government is denying climate change, why wouldn’t we embrace our climate allies in the business world?

A report was recently released about how Smithfield Foods is meeting its pledge to reduce GHGs. Since 2013, Smithfield has worked in partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a nonprofit at the forefront of environmental sustainability. As the EDF attests, it is true that Smithfield is leading other food industries in cutting GHGs. Yet it is also true that Smithfield continues to extort marginalized communities here in North Carolina.

In this article, I use the case of Smithfield Foods to ask broader questions about ethics and advocacy. I challenge my fellow scientists to consider how power is distributed between industry, academia and communities compared to how it should be distributed. Before we follow the EDF and hold Smithfield up as a role model, we must ask ourselves: if we’re only focused on reducing GHGs, on whose backs are we fighting climate change?

Smithfield Foods

The bacon on your BLT, the pork in your sausage and the carnitas in your taco likely all come from the same source: Smithfield. The scope of their business is massive, and in 2013 they were acquired by a Chinese company, WH Group. Smithfield is both the world’s largest hog producer and pork processor, which means that they raise and slaughter pigs and package meat for distribution. In 2017 alone, global sales exceeded $15 billion. In North Carolina, Smithfield owns 225 hog farms and contracts 1,200 of the state’s 2,200 hog farms (altogether this accounts for 90 percent of North Carolina’s hog production).

Smithfield hog farms are Consolidated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), where hogs are raised in large barns where they eat, sleep and defecate. The shift from pastures to CAFOs has been a seismic shift in North Carolina’s hog industry. In 1974, there were 22,975 hog farms and 1.4 million hogs in North Carolina. Today, there are 2,200 hog farms and over 9 million hogs. All of those hogs need to eat a tremendous amount of grain, which they then digest to produce a tremendous amount of waste. To put “tremendous” in perspective, consider that there are 10.3 million people in North Carolina. Imagine that each person weighed between 300 to 700 pounds, and that these giant North Carolinians lived almost exclusively in three counties. Now imagine that the volume of waste produced by these animals was stored in uncovered, football field-sized pits.

Hogs and Environmental Justice in North Carolina

If you didn’t know your pork chops came from Smithfield, you may have heard about them in the news. Smithfield has been heavily criticized for its waste management practices, which were brought to national attention last year due to a series of nuisance lawsuit settlements and contamination caused by hurricane-related flooding. Stick with me in this section – the injustices perpetrated by Smithfield run deep, but this understanding is necessary to engage with the ethics questions at the end.

The waste management practices in question involve the contamination of lagoons and sprayfields, which have been the focus of most environmental justice organizing against Smithfield. In an industrial hog operation, barns are constructed so that waste falls through holes in the floor and then is periodically flushed out into outdoor waste lagoons. As of January 2018, North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) had issued hog farms permits for the operation of over 3,700 waste lagoons. When the lagoons become full, liquid waste is sprayed on to nearby fields. As you can imagine, this leads to a number of problems: the build up of nutrients and metals in the lagoon water contaminates nearby groundwater and surface water through lagoon leakage or spraying; methane, hydrogen sulfide and nitrous oxides are released as the organics in the lagoon water decomposes; the risk of lagoon flooding during storms increases; and spraying  aerosolizes fecal water. The odor and pollution impact people’s health and quality of life. Although DEQ waste permits specify when, where, and how much lagoon waste can be sprayed, the process is self-regulated and frequently violated by hog farms. Besides waste management, neighboring communities are also affected by the use of antibiotics in animal feed, pollution from the storage of dead pig carcasses, and heavy truck traffic.

What makes this environmental pollution an issue of environmental justice? According to the US Department of Energy, environmental justice ensures that “no population bears a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences” and that historically marginalized populations have a seat at the table when environmental decisions are to be made. Hog operations, however, disproportionately affect low-income communities of color. In North Carolina, African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans are 1.4, 1.26, and 2.39 times as likely, respectively, to live within three miles of at least one hog operation. In total, an estimated 1 million North Carolinians live within three miles of hog operation, and over half of them live within three miles of two or more. In fact, about 16,000 residents live within only half a mile of 2 – 5 industrial hog operations [reference: public comment submitted by UNC faculty and students regarding the renewal of NC’s animal operations general permit]. A recent study found that residents living near industrial hog operations had a higher risk of infant mortality and low birth weights as well as higher risk of adult mortality from anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis, and blood bacterial infections as compared to communities of similar demographics.

Civil rights groups have taken two legal strategies to advocate for these communities. First, in 2013, 600 residents filed 26 lawsuits against Murphy-Brown LLC, the subsidiary of Smithfield that produces the majority of Smithfield’s pork in North Carolina. This started a series of retaliatory steps by Smithfield and its allies in the North Carolina legislature. Immediately after the lawsuits were filed, the General Assembly made it more difficult to file nuisance lawsuits against agriculture (Right to Farm Act). In 2017, the General Assembly passed HB 467, limiting the total compensatory damages that can be awarded in nuisance lawsuits. HB 467 was sponsored by Representative Jimmy Dixon from Duplin County, which is home to over 500 industrial hog operations. In 2018, after the first trial ended and a jury awarded the plaintiffs $51 million, the General Assembly passed SB 711 by Senator Brent Jackson and Rep. Dixon, both of whom receive contributions directly from Smithfield or from political organizations funded by Smithfield. SB 711 further limits when a nuisance lawsuit can be filed as well as when punitive damages can be awarded. Both HB 467 and SB 711 were passed over Governor Roy Cooper’s veto. In the three cases settled in 2018, plaintiffs were awarded $51 million, $25 million, and a historic $473.5 million in damages, but these were reduced to $630,000, $3.2 million and $118 million, respectively, due to HB 467 and SB 711. An additional two cases have been settled, both finding Smithfield Foods at fault. Although plaintiffs were suing Murphy-Brown and not individual farmers, Smithfield chose to remove hogs from the specific farms involved in each of the three settled lawsuits, putting the hog farmers out of business. Smithfield has successfully framed nuisance lawsuits not as a right of property owners, but as an attack on farming families. Since hog farmers tend to be white and the plaintiffs are mostly people of color, this has flared tensions along racial lines.

Civil rights groups have used another legal tool: appealing to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to fight the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). In 2014, the Waterkeeper Alliance, North Carolina Environmental Justice Network (NCEJN) and Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help (REACH) filed a complaint with the EPA that the DEQ was violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits entities receiving federal funding from acting in ways that disproportionately harm communities of color. As mentioned previously, the DEQ grants permits to hog operations so they can have waste lagoons that, in turn, harm neighboring communities of color. Former North Carolina Governor Patrick McCroy had disregarded public requests to account for the racial and ethnic impacts of the hog industry when issuing waste permits. Under his tenure, civil rights groups attempted to negotiate with DEQ over the Title VI violation, but civil rights organizations were subject to intimidation by the hog industry. However, under Governor Roy Cooper, the DEQ has cooperated with the EPA and formed an Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board. As part of the settlement, DEQ will be more transparent about how it investigates animal waste complaints.

Finally, it is worth noting that Smithfield’s business practices do not only negatively impact neighboring communities, but the farmers themselves. Contract farming is responsible for 81% of hog production for Smithfield. In these contracts, farmers supply labor and equipment and are responsible for waste disposal (the part of the business that costs money), but Smithfield owns the feed and the pigs (the part of the business that makes money). This arrangement puts contract farmers in a financially difficult situation. The debt they face after constructing facilities keeps them vulnerable to their terms of contract and they are not left with sufficient resources to upgrade their facilities beyond what Smithfield requires. Furthermore, Smithfield controls almost every part of the supply chain in eastern North Carolina, from the distribution of grain-based feed supply to pork processing plants, a process called vertical integration. This means that even if a farmer wanted to break a contract and convert their land to a smaller hog farm, they would be operating in a place without easy access to feed or processing plants to support their business.

Didn’t the EDF say there was good news? Smithfield’s Sustainability Goals

In 2010, Walmart approached 15 of their major suppliers to lower their GHG emissions (an initiative which they renewed with their 2017 Gigaton Challenge to reduce emissions among suppliers). As a result, in 2013, Smithfield partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund to reduce emissions, largely by reducing fertilizer loss from grain production. The details of their progress were published in the case study mentioned earlier. Indeed, Smithfield has met their target for reducing GHG emissions from grain farms and feed milling, and has supported the majority of farmers from which they source  to adopt more sustainable fertilizer practices.

However, the case study points out that while 19% of Smithfield’s GHG emissions came from grain farms in 2018, 43% came from manure management. This refers to the methane and nitrous oxides given off by open waste lagoons. Smithfield is now turning towards biogas technology to address this issue, which captures methane and other gases and refines them into natural gas that can be used for energy. Biogas is a promising technology for curbing emissions, creating jobs, and providing renewable energy for North Carolina. However, Smithfield’s current plans do not involve community advocates nor do they ensure that their waste management practices will comply with environmental standards set by the North Carolina General Assembly in 2007 for new hog operations. Waste will still be pumped into lagoons that may pollute groundwater or be prone to overflow in storms, and effluent will still be sprayed on to neighboring fields. Smithfield has yet to include host community benefit agreements as part of their plan.      

The EDF and Smithfield have a clear strategy for environmental issues: make progress by putting aside differences and focus on common ground. This led to the successful reduction of GHGs through supporting grain farmers. This strategy seems pragmatic. However, after six years of partnership, at what point is pragmatism a euphemism for complicity?

Advocacy and hard questions

This case study illustrates how systems and sociopolitical context influence the way the scientific challenges of our day, like climate change and environmental justice, are tackled. Smithfield is an example of a powerful corporation both making meaningful contributions to fighting climate change through reductions in GHGs, while at the same time polluting the environment and investing heavily in the perpetuation of environmental injustice.

Yet if Smithfield can pay for lawyers to fight nuisance cases, buy the influence of North Carolina representatives, and support monarch butterfly preservation, they certainly can afford to compensate communities suffering from their hog operations and remediate the damage they have caused. And if the Environmental Defense Fund is truly committed to their mission of protecting our climate and human health and truly values ethical action, they should be transparent about the injustices Smithfield still has to right.

There are three main calls-to-action I would like to put forth.

1: Learn from communities. If you conduct research in a field related to identifying and treating hazards, recognize the expertise of communities affected by these hazards and learn how to support community organizing. Community-based participatory research (CBPR) is a method that involves the community in every step of the research process, using their lived experience to drive research questions, collect data and interpret results. In this way, CBPR transforms “research from a top-down, expert-driven process into one of co-learning and co-production.” For example, when UNC’s Dr. Steve Wing investigated the health effects of living near hog operations in North Carolina, the project was a result of working with community members rather than simply in communities. Through their lived experience, community members best understood the kinds of healths effects of living near CAFOs, the relationships between different community members, and the relationship between Smithfield and contract farmers. When results were published, community partners were included as coauthors. Even if findings are not published, communities can use them as evidence when pushing for change, such as submitting public comments to local government or in court.

If your research is relevant to community health, how do you engage communities? Do you value their expertise? Are they involved in research design? Do you invest time into building trust and relationships? Do you compensate community members for their time? Do you present or disseminate results in a way that’s accessible, relevant and empowering for communities?

As an aside, if you follow no other link in this article, I urge you to read more about the late Dr. Wing here or here.

2: Be an engaged scientist. CBPR is most common in the health and environmental sciences, and not all STEM fields lend themselves to community engagement. For example, understanding the chemical bonds in tertiary protein structure or figuring out how to travel to Alpha Centauri  are scientific endeavors that expand our knowledge of how the world works. We do them because, as Mae Jemison has said, “pursuing an extraordinary tomorrow builds a better today.”

However, there are still ways to be an advocate in science, regardless of your field. Be aware that every stage of the scientific process is influenced by the politics of scientists, funders and institutions: the questions to be answered, the datasets to be used, the solutions that are offered and the way solutions are evaluated. This reality reflects the importance for diverse perspectives, both by increasing representation from marginalized communities within the scientific community as well as developing equal partnerships with communities themselves.

In addition, be vigilant against the influence of special interests in science. Advocate for a democratic scientific process in the institutions you work in. Unfortunately, the publication and dissemination of scientific findings are vulnerable to industry and political pressures. Recently we have seen this at the EPA with climate change. At UNC, Dr. Steve Wing’s documents were seized by North Carolina’s Pork Council, a special interest group funded by Smithfield.

How can science advance the public good when research is increasingly privately funded? Is any of your institution’s funding tied to special interest groups, and does this give science a lack of power? How can an academic best partner with community organizers to advocate for change, when institutions may have mixed support for more progressive and political causes? Is there an equal sharing of power between your research institution and communities?

3: Be an engaged citizen.  Show up to fight for a more equitable and sustainable future.

There are some individual actions you can take. Voting is one. In North Carolina, Governor Cooper unsuccessfully tried to veto HB 467 and SB 711, two pieces of legislation mentioned earlier that have dismantled community power, making it harder to file nuisance lawsuits and reducing the compensation plaintiffs can receive. Governor Cooper will be up for reelection in 2020, and many of his potential opponents receive contributions from Smithfield and  plan to use his support for HB 467 and SB 711 against him. You can also buy pork products from small, sustainable farms, such as Cane Creek Farms in Saxapahaw.

Unfortunately, in a gerrymandered state, your vote is not enough. In a consolidated food system, with large corporations like Smithfield, buying local is not enough. We must advocate for systems changes. Fighting climate change or environmental injustice both require a combination of public education, political legislation and engaged corporations.

As Dr. Wing advocated, “we need to insist that industrial producers pay for their damages to human health and the environment.” The most important direct action you can take is to aid organizations that uplift the voices of affected community members, through donations or volunteering. We must support their efforts to raise awareness of their issue, to lobby political leaders for increased regulation and enforcement and to negotiate with corporations. In the case of Smithfield, you can support NCEJN or REACH. If you are financially able, you can donate. You can also volunteer your time.

How else can you advocate for communities and support their right to self-determination? How can we work to make systems changes while up against corporations with large lobbies? And in pursuing a career in science where objectivity is valued, in a world where future employers in academia or industry will google who you are, are you willing to speak truth to power as a citizen to demand systems change?

I don’t pose these as rhetorical questions. I would love to hear what you think. Please leave comments! Or email me, at amlacko@ad.unc.edu

I would like to thank Justine Grabiec for her help with editing. I would also like to give a special thanks to Danielle Gartner, Adrien Wilkie, Mike Dolan Fliss and Libby McClure for their thoughtful comments on how to improve my framing of this article, for their links to additional resources, for their continued partnership with organizations like NCEJN and REACH, and for all they do to keep Dr. Steve Wing’s legacy alive through the Epidemiology and Justice group. You all are rockstars.

Peer edited by Justine Grabiec and Rita Meganck..

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Your Guide to the CRISPR Babies

Imagine a future in which we can edit genes like a sentence in Microsoft Word. We could highlight, delete, and correct a section of a gene known to cause disease, virtually eliminating the devastating genetic illnesses that cost the world billions of dollars and countless hours of heartache every year. This is a future envisioned by many scientists working on the CRISPR-Cas9 system of gene editing. These researchers have used the technology to cure everything from liver disease to cataracts in mice. Ethical concerns have limited these experiments to model organisms and until recently, on-demand gene editing in humans seemed like more of a science fiction fantasy than a potential reality. All of that appears to have changed, however, with a Chinese scientist named He Jiankui claiming to have successfully used CRISPR to delete an HIV-related gene in two human babies late last year. This claim has stirred up quite a bit of controversy, to put it lightly, in the scientific community, but why is it such a big deal? Let’s take a closer look at the experiment and the hopes and concerns it brings to light.

A CRISPR introduction

CRISPR, short for CRISPR-Cas9, stands for “clusters of regularly interspaced palindromic repeats.” The major player in the CRISPR system is Cas9, which is a protein that acts like molecular scissors to chop up DNA. This system first evolved as a bacterial defense mechanism that targeted Cas9 to common sequences found in viruses, allowing the bacteria to chew up viral DNA and prevent infection. However, scientists then discovered that Cas9 could be targeted to just about any sequence of DNA they wanted. The secret lies in how Cas9 targets specific DNA sequences: the protein works together with a piece of RNA called guide RNA that matches up to the target DNA sequence. Modify this RNA and you can cause Cas9 to cut up whatever DNA you choose. Thanks to DNA repair, scientists can even provide a template sequence, say to correct a bad version of the gene, that can be incorporated into the DNA cut by Cas9 to fix a genetic mutation. These manipulations can be done in cells in a dish or even by injecting the CRISPR components into animals.

An overview of using CRISPR to delete a segment of DNA. Made using biorender.io.

The first CRISPR humans?

Until last November, using CRISPR to induce inheritable changes in live organisms was restricted to animals like fruit flies and mice. However, on November 26, 2018, the Associated Press reported that Chinese scientist He Jiankui claimed to have successfully used CRISPR to delete a gene associated with HIV infection in two human embryos. The edited embryos were created using in vitro fertilization (IVF), checked for successful editing after CRISPR treatment, and implanted back into the women who donated them. Allegedly, the edited embryos resulted in the birth of healthy twin girls. The gene Jiankui claims to have deleted encodes the protein CCR5, a human cell surface receptor that the HIV virus requires to infect immune cells. Essentially, deletion of CCR5 results in no HIV infection. This manipulation, Jiankui says, could protect the children from acquiring HIV and has broad implications for the management of HIV from a public health perspective. From a basic science perspective, the birth of children from CRISPR-edited embryos is an incredible achievement. However, as with almost every method of genome editing, the ethical controversy of Jiankui’s work has become just as important as the scientific implications.

Ethical and scientific concerns

One of the largest outstanding questions surrounding the alleged CRISPR babies is the fact that they are just that: alleged. Jiankui has not published the results of his manipulations in a peer-reviewed scientific journal and the identities of the children’s parents have been kept private to protect them from media scrutiny and potential backlash. However, let’s say that Jiankui actually did successfully delete the CCR5 gene in embryos that went on to become healthy human babies. What’s the problem with that? First, although some people have naturally occurring mutations that inactivate CCR5, the changes that Jiankui made in the embryos do not appear to mimic those natural mutations, leading to concerns about potential unintended consequences. Additionally, a well-known issue with CRISPR is its potential for off-target effects, or making changes in genes other than the targeted one. Finally, even if CCR5 was correctly inactivated with no off-target effects, the naturally occurring inactivating CCR5 mutations have been shown to have negative health effects, such as increasing the risk for infection and complications of West Nile virus. The scientific consensus is that using CRISPR to make such drastic, inheritable changes is unsafe simply because we don’t know enough about it yet. Ethically, a large concern with gene editing in humans is the old slippery slope argument: if we can delete disease-causing genes, what’s to stop people from editing embryos to select for traits like eye color or intelligence? Along the same lines, proponents of CRISPR gene editing in humans speak of “curing” conditions with a probable genetic basis like autism. However, advocacy organizations like Autism Speaks say this is a fundamental misunderstanding of this complex condition and that many people with autism view it as an inextricable part of themselves, not a disease to be cured. For these reasons and more, the larger scientific community has condemned Jiankui’s alleged experiments as risky and unethical. More extensive experiments in model organisms and strict ethical guidelines are needed before scientists can even think about bringing CRISPR into the mainstream.  Although this technology seems like it could be a magic bullet for genetic editing, it’s clear that the way forward is uncertain and each new advance creates more questions than it does answers. For now, at least, a world of CRISPR on-demand is still a distant future.

Peer edited by Rachel Battaglia and Breanna Turman.

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Synthetic Chimeras: Separating Science from Science Fiction

Earlier this year, scientists from the Belmonte lab at the Salk Institute (La Jolla, CA) reported the first successful grafting of human stem cells into pig embryos. In other words, they were able to merge human stem cells with a nonhuman embryo to create an organism called a chimera.

https://pixabay.com/en/stem-cell-sphere-163711/Chimeras usually contain genetic information from two or more sources. They need not be man-made or interspecies; an example of a naturally occurring chimera is a fetus that incorporates genetic information from a deceased twin (a condition known as tetragametic chimerism). But in order to create a synthetic, interspecies chimera, the genetic material from the donor species must be compatible with the host’s genetic material.

For experts in the field of synthetic biology, this announcement may signal the first step towards the goal of growing transplantable human organs in animals. But such research might be contentious, especially when the human genome is involved. Ethical issues, such as the creation of mammals with human-like intelligence or human reproductive organs, are currently at the forefront of debates. Reflecting public and expert concerns, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) placed a moratorium on the use of federal funding for this kind of research in 2015 before lifting it in the fall of 2016. However, privately funded research in this area is unrestricted (such as the Belmonte lab’s work). Thus, the use of synthetic chimera in biomedical research will only continue to grow, and separating the science from the science fiction will be increasingly crucial.https://www.flickr.com/photos/95230066@N07/29697835732

Prior research in 2010 by Kobayashi and coworkers at the University of Tokyo focused on merging pluripotent stem cells (PSC) from rats into mouse embryos. Their goal was to grow a rat pancreas in the mouse host. PSC are ideal for chimera creation as they can turn into a wide variety of specialized cells, which in turn can give rise to organs. However, this method of using PSC to create full organs runs a high risk of randomness – PSC may not become the desired organ.

To get around this problem, Belmonte and coworkers used a relatively new genetic tool, CRISPR-Cas9, to “turn off” the gene in mice that leads to pancreatic development. When the researchers injected the rat PSC into their mice embryonic hosts, they were able to create mice with a functional pancreas. Thus, Belmonte and coworkers were able enrich chimerism for the rat-mouse system, potentially allowing biologists to translate this method to other synthetic mammalian chimeras.

Belmonte and coworkers then attempted to translate their work into a mouse-pig donor-host system, but were unsuccessful due to different evolutionary lineages between the species and gestation times. Taking a step back, the researchers decided to focus on closer mammalian relatives – pig and cattle. Belmonte and coworkers decided to test the viability of human PSC (hiPSC) towards generating human-animal chimerism. They developed specialized hiPSC and implanted these cells into pig and cattle embryos. The researchers found that a very low amount of human cells were incorporated into the embryos (approximately 1 in 100,000 cells). With these results, they concluded that the current method for generating human-pig chimeras is highly inefficient.

Consequently, this method is unsuited for the construction of human-like organs. The organs harvested from the pig hosts were, essentially, pig organs. They contained a high percentage of animal tissue, despite the incorporation of human cells. Using these organs in humans would very likely lead to organ rejection. Belmonte and coworkers hypothesized that a large evolutionary distance between humans and pigs may be responsible for the difficulties with this system, citing the relatively close genetic lineages between mice and rats as being crucial to the success of the mouse-rat chimera. Since the gestational differences between human and pigs are vastly different (9 months vs. approximately 112 days respectively), the embryonic cells may be developing at different rates, potentially leading to lower hiPSC counts. However Belmonte and coworkers plan to apply the CRISPR-Cas9 technique toward the human-pig chimeras to boost the presence of human cells.

Individuals troubled by the ethics of synthetic chimeras can breathe easy for now, as fully functional human chimeras still exist in the realm of science fiction. But as research in this burgeoning field continues, science fiction may very well become fact. However, given the difficulty of moving from rat-mouse chimeras to human-pig chimeras (a process that took 10 years), applications of this basic research may take some time to realize. Nevertheless, it is crucial for the scientific community and the broader public to be informed and to communicate on this piece of exciting science.

Peer edited by Julia DiFiore and Kaylee Helfrich.

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