Thursday, 30 April 2009

(A)H1N1, Intensive Farming and You

As we hover on the brink of a possible pandemic of swine flu, which we are all now being told to call (A)H1N1 out of deference to pork producers, I can’t help but wonder if we have not somehow contributed to the emergence of this disease. Is it possible that we – and by this of course I mean the collective we - could be somehow responsible for its development?

The disease’s journey appears to have started in a tiny village in Mexico called La Gloria. A combination of one strain of avian flu, one strain of human flu and two strains of swine flu, it moved quickly, killing dozens of people in Mexico at the date of writing. Transference of the disease appears to be totally from human to human in this case, creating a the curious situation of a global health emergency that appears to have come from nowhere in particular. And now, it seems, it is getting practically everywhere. New cases are springing up daily, and while thankfully most people are responding well to treatment, this is a very worrying disease. It is not just the form it is taking now that we need to worry about; it is the form it might develop over the next few months. Influenza itself is a very unpredictable disease, and this mutation of it is no different.

However, regardless of appearances, something has to have started this modern day plague. Pigs have suffered from swine flu for years, in the same way as chickens have suffered from avian flu. Understandably, there is a real resistance by pig and chicken production companies to acknowledge the connection between their animals and variations of this disease that affect humans, such as the (A)H1N1 strain we are dealing with now. However as time goes on, this connection may be harder to deny.

Strangely enough, there is an intensive pork farming operation about twelve miles from La Gloria, the first place a case of (A)H1N1 was recorded. The Mexico City newspaper La Jornada reported that state agents of the Mexican social security institute are concerned about the clouds of flies that come out of the barns there and also the alleged ‘waste lagoons’ into which the company that owns this farm disposes of the tons of manure generated by the animals inside. Smithfield, a company who have previously been fined in the United States for violating pollution permits in Virginia with waste from their farming operations, vigorously denies the virus is in any way connected to its operations in Mexico and have assured the authorities that they regularly vaccinate their pigs against swine influenza.

It is a good thing they do that. The circumstances of intensive farming operations, where animals and birds are raised in extremely cramped and often filthy conditions, mean that disease can spread rapidly between them. Animals often have to be heavily medicated just to ensure they live long enough to be slaughtered. Vaccination against disease and treatment with antibiotics are common. As a result, the animals can develop resistance to some strains of disease and viruses, and with the potential overuse of antibiotics, those diseases and viruses can mutate.

Even if there is no correlation between intensive farming and the spread of these nasty diseases, something which I find hard to believe, it cannot be a good thing to be exposed to the waste products from these huge operations, many of which raise tens of thousands of animals every year. And it seems an uncanny coincidence that the majority of the cases of swine flu (I mean (A)H1N1) began in such close proximity to one of these operations.

However even if there is no connection in this particular case, there can be no argument that situations like this, and the avian flu problems we experienced 2006, are raising important issues about the methods of food production we are using. Surely it is not good to raise such a large number of animals in such cramped and unsanitary conditions – and that is before one gets into the ethics of this method of food production.

Interestingly enough, free range and organic farms rarely experience the scale of disease outbreaks intensive farms do. It is believed the animals are healthier because they have more space to roam around in and live more comfortably. Organic farms only use antibiotics to treat actual disease, rarely if ever as a preventative measure.

And yet we as consumers still demand more and cheaper meat, seemingly oblivious to how it is produced. A supermarket local to me is offering chickens for sale this weekend for £2; that is just a little over $4US. It’s pretty much a certainty those chickens did not have a very happy life; in fact I doubt any of them ever saw the sun, except perhaps on their way to the slaughterhouse. But the worse thing is, we as consumers actually buy this meat, stimulating economic demand for it and filling the pockets of the intensive farmers. And we as consumers might actually be contributing to the causes of this latest health crisis by doing this.

I made a decision not long ago to buy only meat that was free range or organic. A lot of other people are taking this same decision these days. It does cost more in the long run, and means that we do not eat meat every day. However, lots of vegetarians survive perfectly well without meat; surely omnivores can manage a few days here and there without it as well. Far better that than to economically stimulate an industry that is not only cruel, but might even be dangerous.

We as consumers need to consider whether it really is worth encouraging an industry that might potentially cause us serious problems in the future. We also need to consider how we could better use our consumer dollars to stimulate the free range and organic industries that not only raise healthier meat, but meat that really does taste better and is better for us. The collective ‘we’ has a great deal of power but only if we use it sensibly can we really effect positive change for the future.

As for the issue of global pandemics, it’s a very worrying one. Surely anything we can do to lessen the threat is worth trying – especially if it is something as simple as making better choices when we do our weekly shopping.

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