DONG NAI, VIETNAM – It was March and Nguyen Thi Bong had been complaining about the foul smell of pig manure in Village number 5 in Phu An commune for years. She and a group of other women in the community in Dong Nai province, in southern Vietnam, had had enough and they wanted local authorities to know it.
In 2014, a 10,000-head pig farm and a series of open-air waste pits sprang up next to her house in the province known as the “pig capital of Vietnam.” The fishpond near her house soon turned black from waste discharged by the farm. While men and young people in the village go to school and work far afield, middle-aged women who work from home like Bong suffer the most from this pollution directly.
The pig farm has stifled the fresh air in a countryside surrounded by hills and mountains near the highlands. But Bong’s village is not the only community being suffocated by pig waste. There are hundreds of such villages in Dong Nai, as well as across Vietnam, Asia’s second-biggest pork consumer after China.
The pig population boom has not been accompanied by increased waste disposal capacity, threatening the natural environment, health and livelihoods of locals.
The cost of pork’s popularization
When Bong was a child, pork was a symbol of wealth: she often had to wait until Vietnamese New Year Tet to enjoy a few slices of meat. But now everything has changed.
After three decades of government-led economic reforms known as Doi Moi (“renovation” or “innovation” in English), pork is abundant in Vietnamese meals, including in dishes whose traditional recipes only called for rice and vegetables.
According to the Ministry of Health, the average amount of meat consumed by Vietnamese people has increased tenfold, from less than 14 grams per person per day in 1985 to nearly 140 grams per person per day in 2020. Pork accounts for more than 70% of the meat consumed per year with 3.8 million tons.
A study by Dr Arve Hansen from the Center for Development and Environment at the University of Oslo (Norway) has shown that both economic development and changes in food practices are among the catalysts driving Vietnam’s love of meat.
Especially important has been the transition from the traditional extensive husbandry model to intensive livestock production after the Doi Moi policies were enacted. The livestock reform policies have increased the number of piggeries dramatically.
As a result, the domestic supply became abundant, contributing to the normalization of meat in everyday life.
“This has great implications for all households, who now have much easier access to pork than their previous generations,” Hansen said in an online interview.
The General Statistics Office of Vietnam showed the pig herd after 20 years had doubled from about 16 million in 1995 to more than 30 million in 2016. Due to African swine fever and the Covid-19 pandemic, the present figure is approximately 28 million.
According to the Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Vietnam is the second-largest producer of pork in Asia after China and the sixth-largest producer of pork in the world. Mainly products are supplied for domestic needs, but a few are exported to markets such as mainland China and Hong Kong.
“But following the upscaling of the meat industry there are quite obvious problems in the form of soil, water and air pollution, especially in the cases of uncontrolled waste from large farms,” Hansen added.
A huge amount of waste
Hansen’s assessment is consistent with the current reality. More pork on the table means more livestock waste in the surrounding environment. Over the years, authorities have sanctioned a series of pig farms for waste discharge violations.
The domestic press has repeatedly reported that pig farms strangle rivers and streams, even threatening large rivers that are supplying water to tens of millions of people, including Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest metropolis.
Research published in 2017 by the World Bank showed that pig farming produced the highest proportion of manure, causing the highest level of pollution in livestock production than other species in Vietnam. Meanwhile, pig farms are still concentrated mainly in densely populated areas throughout the Red River Delta, the Mekong Delta and the Southeast.
Pigs contribute the highest value to the livestock industry in Vietnam, but nearly half of their manure, which is untreated, is directly released into the environment, accounting for the highest percentage of waste produced by the country’s farm animals.
Unlike with other livestock, the waste from pigs cannot only be thought of as excrement and urine. It also includes waste water from pig cooling and barn cleaning. The tropical climate of Vietnam is often sweltering, so significant amounts of water are discharged from these two activities.
According to The Low Carbon Agriculture Support project (LCASP) of The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, farmers usually use about 30-40 liters of water per pig per day for cooling and cleaning. Every year, the pig industry produces about 300 million cubic meters of dirty water.
This figure, according to a 2020 report from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, accounts for nearly 66% of the total wastewater volume produced by the livestock industry.
LCASP considers the excessive use of fresh water to be the main reason for pollution in this sector. Farms cannot tackle the huge volume of wastewater by using it to irrigate crops. They also cannot transport it to other agricultural areas for cultivation and aquaculture because of its stench.
Depriving locals of their livelihoods
When Tran Thi Luu’s green paddy field, which sat right in front of her family’s house, disappeared, it was as if she had lost her home itself. Luu’s house, next to Bong’s, was replaced by a large-scale pig farm.
Luu, 42, and her husband had to regularly evacuate their two children to her parents’ house to avoid the stench. But the escape was not always smooth, especially during strict lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We had to stay at home and endure the rank air for several months,” recalled Luu, a mask still affixed to her face, which could be as much for preventing a coronavirus infection as to avoid the smell. “Home is no longer a safe place. No one wants to visit our house. They are afraid of the stench of pig manure.”
No water quality tests have taken place in her village since the pig farm began operations, but a blackened sewage reservoir a few feet from her house makes her suspect the source of the water is from the well.
Luu must spend roughly $20 per month on bottled water for her family, which is the equivalent of two days’ salary. But this was not the biggest loss she’d experienced.
Women like Luu and Bong had to give up raising silkworms because of crop failure for several years in a row. The silkworms did not produce cocoons and gradually just died.
With many years of experience, the Phu An women believe that the causes lie in the disinfectant spray used by the area’s piggeries.
“Since the outbreak of African swine fever, they [swine farm staff] have sprayed more and more, on trucks seen in and out of the farm, even outside the farm several times a day,” said Luu.
The women used plastic tarpaulins to surround the silkworm-rearing area to prevent chemical intrusion, but the silkworms were still dying.
Luu lost all her savings as well as a loan she invested in the silkworm business. She put the bamboo flat baskets once used to raise silkworms in a corner of her house. She now has to work at a shoe leather factory to make up half the income she earned from her former occupation.
There is a paradox. Although livestock is considered a key industry in Vietnam’s agricultural economy, it was not until 2018 that the country issued a separate law to keep up with the enlarged production scale.
In early 2020, the Law on Livestock Production officially took effect. For the first time, environmental aspects, construction standards and waste management were detailed and clearly legislated. Accordingly, livestock farms are not allowed to be built in residential areas and must ensure a prescribed distance.
The provinces also set a target that by 2025, 100% of livestock farms must be either moved out of residential areas, grouped into concentrated livestock areas or have their operations ceased altogether.
Culling the piggeries
The women of Phu An will have to wait at least three more years to see the pig farm leave their village land. However, the general secretary of the livestock association does not see it as a promising solution.
“With the current huge amount of waste, even if the pig farm is built far from residential areas in accordance with the regulations, it will only reduce the direct impacts on local people, but it cannot prevent environmental damage, and in the end, [such] people still have to suffer the consequences,” Thang said.
Pigs do not release much methane gas, but their manure certainly does. Experts assume that giant pig manure pools are the furnaces that emit this potent greenhouse gas, which is, per unit, a larger driver of global warming than carbon dioxide.
Pig manure not only pollutes the air, soil and water nearby, but also threatens Vietnam’s promise to cut methane by 30% by 2030 made at the UN climate change COP26.
Biogas tunnels to turn waste into energy are applied by domestic pig farms as the main solution to limiting dispersion into the environment, reducing the amount of greenhouse gasses.
However, according to Thang, biogas did not have enough capacity to handle all the manure for the quantity of pigs on farms increasing exponentially. The results of the study carried out in the Red River Delta also showed the inefficiency of biogas in correlation to the escalating scale of the piggery.
While domestic problems remain unsolved, the environmental responsibility of Southeast Asia’s largest pig producer is bulging beyond its borders. Vietnam has turned to grain imports as feed ingredients to support meat production, which has grown by nearly 30% over the past decade.
By far, it is the largest corn importer in Southeast Asia, the majority of which is used in animal feed. The USDA estimated the country to be the fifth largest importer globally this year.
Argentina and Brazil are the two main sources of raw materials for animal feed in Vietnam. In these South American countries, vast forests have been cut down to make way for monocultures of grains that feed these pigs. A piece of pork on the dinner table in Vietnam may now be linked to deforestation across the world, which is itself a major cause of global warming.
At present, the love of pork is said to be on a downward trend in Vietnam, Nguyen Xuan Duong, the former director of the Department of Livestock Production, said that the reduction is too small to reduce the proportion of pigs in the structure of livestock production.
Vietnam faces a difficult situation: How to ensure the availability of pork while also protecting the environment.
According to Duong, the livestock law has been very strict with waste management. In order to meet these regulations, farmers are required to install modern technology, which can take up 40% of the cost of building a farm and is an obstacle for businesses after having faced the economic pressures brought on by African swine fever, the Covid pandemic and the rapidly escalating global price of animal feed.
“Reducing the size of piggeries is an option at this time,” Duong said, emphasizing the solution would be to shift to other livestock which produce less waste. He added that the government should support businesses through the purchase of energy generated from the pig manure-derived biogas.
According to the methane reduction plan launched in early August, livestock will not produce more than 15.2 million tons of equivalent CO2 emissions by 2030. The World Bank’s report shows that in 2012, the total CO2 emissions in livestock were approximately 15 million tons.
In the same year, the country also expects the dream of becoming an international pork exporting powerhouse will also come true. Government projections include an export value of $3 billion by 2030, a 70-fold increase from 2022 ($45 million); Vietnam would therefore capture nearly 10% of the global market.
Back at the farm, waiting in vain
In early July, the pig farm in front of Bong’s house in Dong Nai was fined about $250 by the provincial authorities and forced to stop operating for 6 months. Yet, the pig farm somehow remains active.
Of the members of the Phu An women’s group who lodged an official complaint with the commune, Luu was not present. If she had ditched her job to accompany them, it would have meant the loss of one day’s wages at her factory job.
But there was another important reason why Luu held her tongue: “I don’t believe we can defeat the pig farm.”
Bong and Luu both want to leave their village now, after many years of waiting in vain for the authorities’ decision on the polluting operation.
“They asked us to go to the central government to report this. We are just poor people, we don’t have the ability to go there to sue,” said Bong. “The only way left is to endure. Where else can we go?”
Originally published in Tia Sáng Magazine, this article is part of the Internews Earth Journalism Network’s special collaborative project on One Health and meat in the Asia Pacific entitled “More Than Meats the Eye.” It brings together eight media outlets from different countries and more than a dozen reporters to cover the impact of meat on animal, human and environmental health in the Asia-Pacific region.