By Debra Probert
The hysteria over the H1N1 swine flu is reaching epidemic proportions. Yet the general public has little understanding of the flaws in our conventional food production systems that may have contributed to the development of the virus in the first place. Despite the repeated warnings of scientists regarding the dangers to human health from intensive livestock production, our public health officials are frantically attempting to address the symptoms while ignoring the likely cause.
Modern intensive farming and the global movement of people and animals have created conditions unprecedented in history. Stressful, crowded, and filthy environments combined with the extreme lack of genetic diversity in today’s farm animals have provided a perfect environment for viruses and bacteria to flourish. And flourish they will, until the root problem is dealt with. Sadly, this is unlikely to happen any time soon, as government inaction is the standard response.
The roots of the current pandemic lie in a human-pig hybrid flu virus found on a factory farm in North Carolina in 1998. Within months, the virus had acquired components of bird flu viruses, making it the first-ever known hybrid of a human virus, pig virus, and bird virus. It soon triggered outbreaks in Texas, Minnesota, and Iowa. By year’s end, the virus had spread in pig herds throughout the U.S. and, according to an analysis published in 2009 in the journal of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the current H1N1 swine flu virus derives 75 percent of its genetic material from this pool of viruses.
Scientists repeatedly cite factory farms as problematic, as they exponentially increase the potential for pandemics. Commenting on the global spread of the H5N1 avian influenza virus in 2006, Earl Brown, professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Ottawa, said, “This is the first time that we have highly pathogenic avian influenza in Asia, and this is probably related to changes in farm practices...when virus of the H5 and H7 serotypes get into a farm situation where there is a large number of susceptible hosts packed together closely then you can get the rapid evolution to high virulence.”
When asked what role the environment plays in mutation of viruses, Brown said, “When you have high density conditions and overcrowding, like you would see in a pig farm, then the mutation occurs much more quickly as it passes from one snout to the next.” He has since stated, “There are big questions about farming practices that nobody wants to talk about.”
In his book The Chickens Fight Back: Pandemic Panics and Deadly Diseases That Jump From Animals to Humans, University of Guelph agriculture professor David Waltner-Toews acknowledges that a pandemic of salmonellosis is one of the hidden costs of mass producing chickens: “This pandemic could have been taken as a warning, an omen from the chickens of the world, a shot across the bow, as it were. The omen was not cryptic. It might have been something like: the economies of scale for chicken production are the same as the economies of scale for disease; small farms have outbreaks; big farms breed epidemics; globalization of big farms creates pandemics.”
In June, James Roth, director of the Centre for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University spoke to pork producers at the World Pork Expo in Iowa. He was adamant that producers not be complacent about the danger of H1N1 and the role of industry. “It’s essential to prevent transmission from humans [to pigs],” he stated, and went on to explain that the virus can combine with other viruses in the pig population and then spread back to humans in a deadly new form. In fact, there has already been human to pig transmission in Canada, as well as human to turkeys, and most recently a cat has caught the flu from a human in the U.S.
Brown has suggested two changes that would reduce the spread of new strains of influenza: having larger numbers of smaller farms instead of a small number of large farms, and reducing the reliance of agriculture on global trade.
But his message is not likely to reach the public. Government agencies act in relative isolation and excel at passing the buck. Public health agencies will not offend their agriculture counterparts, politicians will not risk their support from industry, and the public will continue buying, consuming, and demanding cheap meat, expecting that the management of the risk factors is not their responsibility but government’s.
Keeping quiet is something Big Agriculture values. As one academic stated in Contemporary Issues in Animal Agriculture, a textbook for agriculture students: “One of the best things agriculture has going for it is that most people in the developed countries...haven’t a clue how animals are raised and processed....For modern animal agriculture, the less the consumer knows, the better.”
Debra Probert is the executive director of the Vancouver Humane Society.