Pigs scream and squeal as they lie down in narrow group pens. Outside, the farm’s pipes churn out pig waste into muddy slurry pits. In the foreground, concrete housing and defunct oil palm plantations line up the blackish river. This is Kampung Selamat, one of the many small towns plagued by factory farming pollution in mainland Penang, Malaysia.
In October 2021, I started a reporting project to cover pig farming pollution in Seberang Perai, Malaysia. Pig farms there polluted a nearby river and affected the livelihood and health of nearby villagers for over 40 years. I quickly learned this pig farming problem was more maliciously widespread across Malaysia, though you wouldn’t know it from the news.
Reading the reporting on Malaysia’s pig farming pollution, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in how the media covers animal agriculture. Newspapers like The Star and The Vibes have at times covered pollution like an isolated event rather than a systemic problem. Worse, flawed technologies like biogas are touted as solutions. I believe the damage caused by CAFOs are felt across the globe — and the media failings I see in Malaysia are mirrored in media outlets in the U.S. and other countries.
When I think back to my brief field trip to Kampung Selamat, I realize that much more than incremental reform is needed to aid pigs to resist becoming living commodities. The problem is farmed animals are only valued for the profit they generate. During the industrial hog life cycle, pigs are valued at their highest dollar amount within six to eight months after birth, then rendered ‘disposable’ as soon as they are shipped off to slaughterhouses — whether it’s because they’ve reached an economically profitable weight or become a biosecurity threat.
The capitalist system of animal agriculture — wherever you find it — is built upon the blood of farmed animals and the exploitation of their human caretakers.
The Path to Industrial Animal Farming
As more Malaysian families entered the middle class in the 1990s, pig farms there industrialized to keep up with higher pork demands. Today, the pork industry is the second largest livestock industry in Malaysia, worth about 1 billion US dollars. There were 614 commercial pig farms with 1.7 million heads in 2020.
According to a Penang Institute agricultural report, the number of domesticated pigs bred by farms in the state is increasing despite more pig farms being shut down — from 324,785 in 2010 to 357,243 in 2018. Based on reporting from 2020 in The Vibes on one area in particular, Kampung Selamat, “each barn has about 2,000 pigs, producing 5,000 kg of feces a day.”
Farms as Zoonotic Battlegrounds Across the Country
Agricultural industrialization comes at a cost. In Malaysia, the rapid industrialization of the pig industry also increased risk of a zoonotic outbreak. Building more commercial pig farms next to tropical rainforests helped facilitate the spread of the Nipah Virus in 1999. Once more domesticated pigs were housed closer to bats and other wildlife, pigs contracted the virus, which quickly spread through the country’s pig population.
More recently, African Swine Fever or ASF infected and spread through the domesticated and wild pig populations across Malaysia — 32 countries in total, killing over 1.5 million pigs between 2020 and 2021. With a near 100 percent mortality rate, ASF-infected pigs experience painful symptoms before their deaths such as skin hemorrhages, vomiting and loss of appetite.
Zoonotic diseases put both animal agriculture workers and residents at risk. In Kampung Selamat, 55-year-old town council member Zulkifli Saad recalled how farmers threw pig carcasses into the nearby river during the 1980s. A couple of residents also echoed past complaints of skin rashes and groundwater contamination. To this day, they fear more zoonotic outbreaks could happen if commercial pig farms keep polluting the environment with porcine waste.
The default solution has been pig culling. But the cullings do not address animal suffering nor the role of industrial agriculture in these outbreaks. So-called “depopulation” of farmed animals is a band-aid solution that doesn’t get at the root cause of the deeper problem.
If one pig is infected with ASF, the other pigs are put down through violent means such as blunt-force trauma, captive-bolt stunning, electrical stunning and gas poisoning. They are often buried in large graves that sometimes were dug too shallow. Most gruesomely, the prevalent method for culling during the Nipah Virus 1999 outbreaks was execution by gunshot, as the Malaysian government killed and shoved 1 million pigs into pits. Unlike ASF, the Nipah Virus was zoonotic and killed 105 people.
During ASF outbreaks today, both state veterinarian support and media coverage have mostly focused on domesticated pigs because they are valuable farmed livestock, but the virus killed wild pigs too, though researchers have struggled to find accurate counts of these deaths.
Reporting on Factory Farms Requires Deeper Investigations
At its best, journalism uncovers the different kinds of power dynamics that affect marginalized communities. It has the potential to expose the relationships of domination, hierarchy and exploitation between humans and animals in typically unseen workplaces like slaughterhouses. Insightful coverage can challenge societal assumptions about where our food comes from.
Much to my disappointment, however, coverage of factory farms in Malaysia has been quite the opposite.
Penang is known to be a major pork producing state — half of Peninsular Malaysia’s commercial pigs are raised there — but the damaging impacts of pig farm pollution have been depicted as a series of isolated, individual events with no mention of the broader systemic issues at work.
To my knowledge, there hasn’t been an in-depth investigation of Penang’s towns plagued by pig farming waste. Even though the problem of factory farming pollution is widespread across industrial towns such as Kampung Selamat, Gertak Sanggrul, Sungai Jawi, Valdor, and Simpang Ampat, no media outlet seems to have ever considered there might be a common point of connection — industrial agriculture.
Although there are over 100 pig farms in Kampung Selamat alone, media coverage uses carceral language in addressing the issue. In a May 2021 article, The Vibes reported that the Penang Deputy Public Prosecutor’s Office could not identify the “mastermind” behind the farming pollution. Their earlier reporting focused on how 50 pig farms were “operating illegally” without licenses for over 40 years.
This news coverage provides no analysis of to what extent concentrated animal farms and large meat corporations have been contributing to exploitative and environmentally destructive activities, nor does it connect the exploitation of human and nonhuman bodies alike that is widespread in industrialized agriculture.
Greenwashing Is Not the Solution
A new trend in journalism is to focus on solutions, which has led to more recent local media coverage that presents converting hog waste into a methane gas called biogas as a viable fix to factory farm pollution.
For example, Malaysian newspaper The Star reported the planned construction of a biogas plant near the small town of Nibong Tebal in Penang with the headline “Towards greener farming with biogas power plant” in June 2022.
Biogas is still natural gas. Burning it releases methane, carbon dioxide and other pollutants such as ammonia, all into the same working-class and marginalized communities that live near pig farms and already experience higher rates of pollution. Biogas is mostly comprised of methane and carbon dioxide, both harmful greenhouse gases that can harm the atmosphere.
Another common misconception in reporting is the portrayal of biogas as improving water quality. Unless biogas operators are required to make use of the manure byproduct in some way, they will frequently just apply it in the same way that typical manure is applied, still releasing some form of animal waste into nearby rivers.
Biogas also does not mitigate the current health risks people and farmed animals face such as pollution and marine life depletion. Kampung Selamat council member Saad observed, “the pollution has caused such a foul smell that engulfs the whole village at its worst [peak] during the late night until the early morning” on a daily basis.
Failing to challenge the commercial pork industry harms livelihoods and fisheries. “The river’s contamination has disrupted the ecosystem that once facilitated our fisheries. Previously, we fished plenty of prawns and shrimps among the fish stock available. Now, all of these habitats are long gone,” said Saad.
Towards Better Media Coverage
One challenge for media outlets in Malaysia and elsewhere is to connect scientific evidence with the lived-experiences of those affected by the pig farming pollution. Journalists are sometimes in a tricky spot in those cases, as described by María Paula Rubiano A. for The Open Notebook: “They want to expose injustices (and sometimes outright crimes) and to highlight the struggles of sick and often marginalized people, but they also don’t want to draw incorrect conclusions about complicated situations.”
In those cases, highlighting gaps in the evidence and raising questions about why those gaps exist is one way journalists can accurately cover people and animals affected by pig farming.
Yet in some cases, the evidence is quite clear, and it just needs to be mentioned. In September 2021, Yale E360 investigated Smithfield Foods’ industrial hog farming pollution in North Carolina. While narrating the socioeconomic plights of interview sources, they cited a 2018 study by Duke University School of Medicine. The paper stated North Carolina communities living near hog CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) were exposed to higher rates of anemia, kidney disease, tuberculosis and mortality.
Recently, Macaranga, a small Malaysian news portal, conducted a two-part investigation series on pig farming in Penang, collecting quantitative data on the financial issues farmers faced in their transition to modernized pig farming systems.
Reading news coverage of animal farming that may seem extractive or portray animals as commodities, you may be left wondering what you can do. Shifting to veganism and other collective forms of boycotting animal agriculture industries are not inherently radical, at least that’s how I see it. These actions are simply calling for empathy and solidarity with the animals and people exploited by capitalism.
And we can go further. Now is the time to shift how we see animals — as our nonhuman collaborators across global health settings, especially, when today’s commercial meat facilities continue to be exploitative breeding grounds for zoonoses.
Kymberley Chu is a PhD student in Anthropology at Princeton University