Book Review: ‘The Wasteland’ by Corban Addison


In a David-Goliath-Goliath story like this, you can’t expect a more brutal and intimidating giant from 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, this slaughterhouse shears approximately 32,000 pigs a day. Workers in the factory for years tar heel plant they were treated almost as badly as pigs: Smithfield harassed union supporterspaid workers to spy on their co-workers and hired deputy sheriffs as corporate security guards who beat and arrested workers. The company was born in Smithfield, Va. in the 1930s, and was subsequently named Joseph W. Luter Sr., Joseph W. Luter Jr., respectively. and became a corporate dynasty led by Joseph W. Luther 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 an American company. Shuanghui International Holdings, a Chinese company now known as WH Group, bought it last year with financing from the state-owned Bank of China. The cost of raising pigs in North Carolina was about half as expensive as raising them in China – and one of the reasons Addison explains is that “the Chinese government does not allow pig farmers to use the lagoons and sprayed fields.” Instead, Chinese swine operations should invest in “treatment plants” and “biological odor control systems to protect neighbors.”

“The Waste Lands” is full of unforgettable people. A series of powerful lawyers agree to take Smithfield for free in exchange for their share of any settlement. They fly private jets, they run focus groups, they hire a cameraman from National Geographic. to convey the status of neighbors. Mona Lisa Wallace is the most likeable and charming member of the legal team, intelligent, tireless, raised in a small town in North Carolina, with a working-class background, dedicated to using the courts to help victims of corporate misconduct. Prominent among the plaintiffs is Elsie Herring, one of 15 children who traveled from North Carolina to New York City and returned almost 30 years later, who, on a walk near her parents’ home, found herself drenched in a foggy dung rain. Like Violet Branch, one of 11 children who have lived in her birth home for more than 70 years but have to endure the pollution of the two waste lagoons next door. Prior to the lawsuit, Branch tirelessly contacted public health officials, journalists, and even the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington to get rid of the odor. He boldly testified in court: “Nothing will be done about it – nothing has been done, because the power structure in these communities will not allow anything to be done about it.”

Smithfield shamelessly uses his power to evade responsibility for the legal “hardship” involved in court. He threatens to leave the state if the cases are successful. He’s spying on lawyers and hiring private detectives to follow up on plaintiffs. It helps to create a front group called “NC Farm Families”. It works closely with the state farm bureau, the chamber of commerce, and the Republican Party, whose members bring bills to the legislature to protect Smithfield from liability. Smells from the company’s pig operations, boasted by one Republican legislator, are the “scent of freedom.” The legislature’s only significant departure from industry-friendly policies occurred in 1997, when a temporary moratorium on new hog operations was passed—just as two were about to be built in Moore County, home to the Pinehurst resort and legendary golf courses.

I am neither vegan nor vegetarian. But I think the pig factories described in “The Waste Lands” and similar CAFOs in other states are forms of systematic animal cruelty. They are crimes against nature. Pigs are intelligent and sensitive creatures with a social structure similar to elephants and capable of multi-level reasoning like dolphins and monkeys. Pigs can recognize themselves in the mirror, distinguish one person from another, recall negative experiences. And they like to be clean. Their life in pig factories is not unlike how they have been raised for thousands of years. They arrive as little piglets, get stuck in each other’s mess, and leave for the slaughterhouse a few months later – without a moment of fun outside during their time in the shed. The filth of these places for the animals that live in them and the people who live nearby really defies words.

Corban Addison did not write a polemic about pork factories like my paragraph above. He crafted a calmly legal thriller full of energy and compassion that touches on really important topics like the works of John Grisham and Scott Turow. Grisham wrote the foreword to this book, and in it he says: “Beautifully written, impeccably researched, and told with an air of suspense few writers can handle, ‘The Waste Lands’ is a story I wish I had written.” I agree with Grisham. But I wish “The Wasteland” was a dystopian piece of science fiction, not a goddamn portrait of how we feed ourselves right now.


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