Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What Can We Learn from Swine Flu?

Mike Davis suggests one important lesson--the worldwide meat industry is far too powerful.

Perhaps it is not surprising that Mexico lacks both capacity and political will to monitor livestock diseases, but the situation is hardly better north of the border, where surveillance is a failed patchwork of state jurisdictions, and corporate livestock producers treat health regulations with the same contempt with which they deal with workers and animals. Similarly, a decade of urgent warnings by scientists has failed to ensure the transfer of sophisticated viral assay technology to the countries in the direct path of likely pandemics. Mexico has world-famous disease experts, but it had to send swabs to a Winnipeg lab in order to ID the strain's genome. Almost a week was lost as a consequence....

But what caused this acceleration of swine flu evolution? Virologists have long believed that the intensive agricultural system of southern China is the principal engine of influenza mutation: both seasonal "drift" and episodic genomic "shift". But the corporate industrialisation of livestock production has broken China's natural monopoly on influenza evolution. Animal husbandry in recent decades has been transformed into something that more closely resembles the petrochemical industry than the happy family farm depicted in school readers.

In 1965, for instance, there were 53m US hogs on more than 1m farms; today, 65m hogs are concentrated in 65,000 facilities. This has been a transition from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, containing tens of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems suffocating in heat and manure while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates.

When you treat animals like inanimate objects rather than like animals, when you concentrate them into inhumane conditions, and when you turn animal husbandry into an industrial operation, nature is going to strike back. Despite our endless faith in technology to solve all our problems, disease evolves too rapidly to keep it under control. We rely on antibiotics to keep these animals alive, but alive and healthy are two very different things. The amazing ability of viruses to adapt means that if we create conditions that allow viruses to flourish in meat production, they will likely mutate and enter humans. Swine flu is just one of many horrifying possibilities.

Moreover, Davis suggests a major problem in fighting this will be the huge power of the meat industry. This is true. Meat has become an industrial operation on farms owned by very few companies. These companies, including Tyson and Smithfield Farms, operate in nations all over the world, using their massive political and financial might to fight environmental regulations. Rumors abound in Mexico that this latest bout of swine flu started on a Smithfield operation near Veracruz; the reality is that Smithfield's power to halt, stall, or at least influence investigations in Mexico means that we are unlikely to ever find out for sure.

What is the solution? First, eat less meat. Yes, your consumer choices matter. These industrialized meat factories exist to supply the huge and growing demand for meat around the world. Until that demand goes down, there's not a lot of incentive to change these conditions. Second, we need American companies operating abroad to adhere to American environmental (and labor) laws. I've always thought this was the answer to many problems concerning globalization--since these companies were leaving the U.S. to escape labor and environmental legislation and regulations, force them to maintain those regulations, with inspections from the U.S. government, and penalties for violations. Third, and possibly more realistically, is for a popular and government push to clean up the worst problems with these factories, to treat animals humanely, and to come up with ways to mitigate the enormous problems with waste and other environmental issues in these operations.

However, given how poorly we have adapted to the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, I find it dubious that we will learn any lessons at all from swine flu.