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HEALTH: Flu Fuels Concerns about ‘Factory Farms’

Shari Nijman

NEW YORK, May 15 2009 (IPS) - While the swine flu virus does not appear to be as potentially devastating as first imagined, environmentalists and some public health activists argue that it should be considered a wake-up call to the public about the conditions in which much of our food is being produced.

The stressful environment in which the animals live makes them more susceptible to infections and illness. Credit: Baileynorwoodrocks

The stressful environment in which the animals live makes them more susceptible to infections and illness. Credit: Baileynorwoodrocks

The exact source of the outbreak remains uncertain. However, one of the first cases – a five-year-old boy – hailed from the town of La Gloria in the Mexican state of Veracruz, just miles from one of the largest pig farms in the world.

That farm is partly owned by U.S. pork processing giant Smithfield Foods, which notes on its website that investigators “have found no clinical signs or symptoms of the presence of North American influenza in the company’s swine herd or its employees at our joint ventures in Mexico.”

Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a U.S. consumer group, is sceptical of this claim. She told IPS that she wouldn’t be surprised if the virus originated at the so-called “factory farm” in La Gloria.

“The conditions on those factory farms are very good for viruses to develop,” Lovera said. “Those factory farms are definitely the right place to look.”

The transmission of dangerous viruses from animals to humans is hardly a recent phenomenon. Some of the most devastating viruses in history emerged from animal sources. During the Middle Ages, the bubonic plague – spread by rats – killed millions of Europeans. And many scientists now believe the HIV virus jumped from African primates to humans.


Most viruses have a host species that suffers no ill effects but acts as a vector, spreading the virus to other animals. Viruses can live inside those so-called host species for a long time.

But when a virus mutates and develops the ability to “jump species”, the new host does not have the necessary antibodies to defend against this unfamiliar virus. This could cause a human to get ill from a flu virus normally carried by pigs, for example.

“Every time a virus enters a new host, it can mutate,” Dr. Michael Greger, director of public health and animal agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States, explained to IPS. “On farms with a small number of animals, the virus might infect only 50 pigs. Therefore, it has only 50 chances to mutate.”

“But on a factory farm with over 5,000 pigs, the virus can generate more than 5,000 chances, thus increasing the chance for a rare mutation, one that might even infect humans,” he said.

Whereas diseases transmitted by contaminated water or poor community hygiene, such as diarrhoea and cholera, have been eliminated in large parts of the world, viral transmission from animals remains a risk in nearly every society.

Three-quarters of human infectious diseases classed as ’emerging’ are transmitted from an animal reservoir, according to a research paper from the University of Lyon published in January.

The rise and steady development of factory farms in the United States and Eastern Europe has kept the price for pork products artificially low, as demand keeps on rising. Some factory farms in the United States can house up to one million pigs in sties so small, even moving is impossible.

Wouter Uwland, the owner of a farm in the Netherlands with just under 2,000 pigs, compares the living conditions for pigs on these massive farms with the harsh conditions in refugee camps. When many humans or animals live together in a small area, disease outbreaks are likely to occur.

“In larger companies, one should always consider the idea of a disease breaking out more likely than in small companies,” he told IPS.

The stressful environment in which the animals live makes them more susceptible to infections and illness. “Just like humans, animals are more likely to get ill when they are stressed,” Dr. Greger said.

Although the flu has dominated the news over the past weeks, the risk of catching the virus is actually the least of the problems for communities situated near factory farms, according to Food and Water Watch.

“The biggest problem is the amount of waste that these pigs produce,” Lovera told IPS.

Pigs produce roughly three times more waste than humans. Some factory farms can hold up to one million pigs at a time, and thus produce the same amount of waste as a city of three million.

The rules and regulations for the disposal of animal waste are different throughout the world. In Europe, the animal waste has to be collected in concrete containers, before it is used as a natural fertiliser on the fields.

In the United States however, where the farms are larger than anywhere else, the animal waste is pumped into so-called ‘lagoons”. In these enormous lakes of waste, the animal excrement may be kept for over a year. Only a layer of clay on the bottom keeps the fluid from getting into the soil and the groundwater.

According to Dr. Greger, these lagoons attract flies that can pick up a virus and carry it for miles. “Studies in Asia have shown that the Avian influenza was sometimes transmitted from farm to farm by flies that picked up the virus and were then eaten by birds,” he said.

The high levels of precautionary antibiotics that the animals receive also find their way into the soil and ultimately the groundwater via the waste. The presence of these antibiotics in the ground and drinking water immunises the consumers for medicinal antibiotics they might take in the future.

Uwland doesn’t see an easy solution to factory farms. “In theory, biological farming [a sustainable, chemical-free method] could produce the same amount of pork. But in practice, there is just not enough grassland to feed all these pigs,” he said.

Furthermore, biological farming doesn’t bring in even two-thirds of the revenue that factory farms do. Especially in the United States, where genetic technology is used to increase the production of crops and herds, the difference between biological and factory farming is just too big, he said.

 
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