Debra Probert: Roots of H1N1 swine flu pandemic lie in factory farming

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      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.



      Former Ag Teacher

      Nov 19, 2009 at 6:26pm

      This article is full of speculation, mis-information and half-truths. If you want valid information on the relation ship between pigs, people and H1N1 go to this link: Audio Special: Dr. Cate Dewey with the Ontario Veterinary College discusses "Zoonotics-How Safe Are Hog Farms?
      Farmscape Audio Special for November 19, 2009 (Episode 3353)

      Dr. Cate Dewey with the Ontario Veterinary College discusses "Zoonotics-How Safe Are Hog Farms?"
      Feature runs 7:10


      If the link doesn't work, cut and paste the url.


      Nov 19, 2009 at 10:45pm

      As this article makes clear, there is plenty of evidence that factory farming is a threat to public health. Apologists for Big Agriculture continue to mislead the public on the real risks represented by this inhumane, unhealthy and unsustainable industry. It's encouraging to see the truth come out.


      Nov 20, 2009 at 8:33pm

      I'm a bit skeptical at a Humane Society director authoring this article. But if you'd like some interesting research, consider the standards of large scale dosing of livestock with antibiotics and the documented relationship to antibiotic resistant microbes that have resulted.


      Nov 30, 2009 at 10:01am

      Hysteria? They can't even get people to turn up for the vaccine. People are not that concerned. As far as how the virus came about, unless a European pig dropped in to Mexico for a vacation, the genetic mix of novel h1n1 appears to be an escapee from a laboratory, not a factory farm. Why a vaccine for a flu that is less deadly than other flus or several other diseases out there?


      Jan 3, 2010 at 12:59am
      From where did the 2009 'swine-origin' influenza A virus (H1N1) emerge?
      Adrian J Gibbs email, John S Armstrong email and Jean C Downie
      1 Australian National University Emeritus Faculty, ACT, 0200, Australia
      2 CIDMLS, ICPMR, Westmead Hospital, NSW, 2145, Australia
      Virology Journal 2009, 6:207doi:10.1186/1743-422X-6-207
      "We discuss a published suggestion that unsampled pig herds, the intercontinental live pig trade, together with porous quarantine barriers, generated the reassortant. We contrast that suggestion with the possibility that laboratory errors involving the sharing of virus isolates and cultured cells, or perhaps vaccine production, may have been involved. Gene sequences from isolates that bridge the time and phylogenetic gap between the new virus and its parents will distinguish between these possibilities, and we suggest where they should be sought. It is important that the source of the new virus be found if we wish to avoid future pandemics rather than just trying to minimize the consequences after they have emerged. Influenza virus is a very significant zoonotic pathogen. Public confidence in influenza research, and the agribusinesses that are based on influenza's many hosts, has been eroded by several recent events involving the virus. Measures that might restore confidence include establishing a unified international administrative framework coordinating surveillance, research and commercial work with this virus, and maintaining a registry of all influenza isolates."