Hey! Farmer! Leave Those Pigs Alone


Animal rights activists: they can be really annoying. This makes it hard to admit they have a point, especially when it’s on a significant issue. On factory farming they do have a good point, and because of swine flu it has suddenly become a very important point, too. This week, blogwatch takes a look at factory farming.

As we now know, this outbreak of swine flu has been traced to unsanitary conditions at a factory farm near the town of La Gloria in the Mexican state of Veracruz operated by Granjas Carroll, a subsidiary of US agro-giant Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork packer and hog producer. Danny Jensen on takepartblog notes first that for some reason, this "disturbing — and not entirely surprising — news has not been widely reported in the US". He strikes the gong of commonsense:

"It’s still unclear how the virus is now spreading between humans without animal contact, but the possible connection should hopefully be enough to convince the global community that unhealthy industrial farming practices put us all at risk."

Smithfield Foods won’t have a bar of it and have issued a statement declaring there are no signs of swine flu in any of its operations in Veracruz. David Kirby at HuffPo fills us in on the details:

"The industry statement that this disease was not transmitted from pigs to people contradicts virtually all Mexican government statements so far, including Mexico’s Health Minister, Jose Angel Cordova, who said the virus ‘mutated from pigs, and then at some point was transmitted to humans’. Whether they were Mexican pigs or not remains a mystery, of course.

"Mexican newspapers have been reporting for weeks that residents living near Granjas Carroll’s massive hog facility at La Gloria are falling ill with severe upper respiratory diseases …

"More than 400 people had already been treated for respiratory infections, and more than 60 per cent of the town’s 3000 residents had reported getting sick, the paper said. State officials disputed that claim, and said the illnesses were caused by cold weather and dust in the air."

Yeah, that’s right: lagoons. The sewage from the pig farms is channelled to create lagoons of sh*t and piss. The farm at La Gloria has three "lagoons".

These places sound disgusting, but being grossed out isn’t an argument against the claims of the pork industry that it’s impossible for bacon lung to be transmitted to humans. This is even though:

"The primary reservoir for influenza viruses is aquatic birds, but humans are not readily directly infected by the strains from those animals. Pigs, however, are highly susceptible to both avian and human influenza A viruses. They are commonly referred to as ‘mixing vessels’ in which avian and human viruses commingle. In pigs, viruses swap genes, and new influenza strains emerge with the potential to infect humans. Pigs may have been the intermediate hosts responsible for the birth of the last two flu pandemics in 1957 and 1968 and the current swine influenza A, called H1N1, is a triple hybrid avian/pig/human virus."

This was written by Aysha Akhtar, blogger at scienceprogress.org. We recommend reading the whole post on the history of the influenza virus. The nitty-gritty is this: the influenza virus, like many other infectious diseases, has undergone what Akhtar calls an "evolutionary surge" in recent decades and the most significant variable is changes in animal farming practices. The post continues:

"Increasingly, thousands of animals are confined in these operations, often crowded into sheds. The percentage of operations in North America with 5000 or more animals expanded from 18 per cent in 1993 to 53 per cent in 2002. The crowding leads to stressful and profoundly unhygienic conditions. Animals continuously inhale and recirculate aerosolized fecal matter, methane, and ammonia.

"The wastes and fumes emanating from these intensive operations are so concentrated that nearby human communities commonly have substantial increases in respiratory illnesses such as asthma.

"The combination of reduced immunity due to prolonged stress in the pigs and the high-density confinement render these operations perfect breeding grounds for new pathogens. Under these conditions, new strains of swine flu are rapidly generated and transmitted from one pig to another by the respiratory route."

So the chances of a swine flu mutating so that it can pass to humans is increasing as our industrialisation of pig farming increases. But how bad can it be? Gwynne Dyer thinks it might be pretty darn bad indeed. When he interviewed pandemic experts about the avian flu outbreak, not many of them were willing to go on record as to their predictions. Dyer writes:

"It’s left to journalists like me to say what’s on their minds. That is: that the way we are getting most of our meat now is probably going to kill quite a lot of us. Just one more hazard of living in a mass society obsessed with getting maximum output at the lowest cost.

"… During the past several thousand years, major quick-killer epidemic diseases that affect human beings have emerged, on average, only once every few hundred years. But now that we keep most of our livestock in crowded cages for their entire lives, generally living above a cesspool of their own excrement and exchanging disease pathogens at blinding speed, the speed of evolution of the pathogens has accelerated dramatically."

Has anyone noticed that every scientist believes their field of study is about to erupt into a cataclysmic disaster in the next few decades? Everywhere you look, there’s an endgame brewing. Half of the islands in the Pacific are scheduled to sink under water about the same time as we hit peak oil, peak water and peak credit. We’ll be fighting super bugs immune to everything we can throw at them as we deal with the collapse of Pakistan, the extinction of every fish that tastes any good, the collapse of capitalism, and an inevitable Sino-American war. And now we’re going to have global pandemics every decade or so. Not to mention bed bugs.

Either someone is telling porkies or our children are going to look at us in disgust for reading and writing ponderous articles about the forthcoming apocalypse while we could have done something. Or at least they would be directing baleful glares our way if only they hadn’t lost both their eyes fighting at the Thunder Dome with a replicant.

So, what should we do to save our non-existent future children?

One’s instinctive response is to say, "If it’s pigs against humans, the pigs are going doooown." Hosni Mubarak, the President of Egypt has auditioned for a leadership role in the coming inter-species warfare by announcing a cull of pigs in Egypt.

The story has only gotten more interesting since Egypt first announced this shocking policy. As medicalnewstoday reports:

"The decision to cull quarter of a million pigs was not a measure against swine flu but a general health measure. ‘The authorities took advantage of the situation to resolve the question of disorderly pig rearing in Egypt,’ said health ministry spokesman Abdelrahman Shahine. The minister continues: ‘the government wants to restructure pig farming so that it takes place on good farms, not on rubbish’. At the moment the pigs live with ‘dogs, cats, rats, poultry and humans, all in the same area with rubbish,’ he said, explaining that the government wants to build new farms in special areas, like they have in Europe."

Yeah, that’s right. Mubarak is not the crusader he appeared to be. He’s actually killing millions of pigs to introduce factory farms. Agriculture Minister Amin Abaza insisted to the press that, "The culling will take place in special slaughterhouses that have been checked for swine flu." That doesn’t appear to be what’s happening in this highly disturbing video of pigs being transported and dumped that has been widely viewed on YouTube.

It is this horrendous footage and much more like it that has roused the anger of world animal rights activists, reports New Zealand online media website Scoop. "The World Society for the Protection of Animals strongly urges Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif to stop the inhumane cull of pigs," reads a letter sent to the Egyptian government.

We don’t know if the WSPA is familiar with Hosni Mubarak. See, the thing about Hosni is that he’s unlikely to give a sh*t. Hosni’s government administers some of the most infamously violent and horrific jails in the world. So he probably doesn’t give a damn about some pigs, or what the hipsters at the WSPA think about him. In fact, why does it take cruelty against some pigs to rouse these folks to anger? None of them were getting up on a soapbox to denounce Mubarak when he was hurting people …

But anyway.

The point is, we shouldn’t be treating pigs like this. Maybe we can just make sure the pigs don’t get the flu to begin with? That’s the solution that the pork industry has backed for the last few decades. Pig farmer Russ Krammer didn’t fare too well under this policy, reports Ediblearia:

"[Russ] fed his pigs daily doses of antibiotic for growth efficiency and to ward off illnesses. Then, one day, Russ was gored by one of his hogs and nearly died from an antibiotic-resistant infection."

Tom Philpot of grist.com tells us in no uncertain terms why doping up our pigs is making things worse:

"In industrial meat production, you stuff animals together in close contact with their own waste, essentially ruining their immune systems. To keep them alive until slaughter weight, you dose them liberally with antibiotics.

"Not surprisingly, antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains have begun to rise up and infect humans. A nasty bacteria called MRSA has been definitively linked to factory-farmed pork; another one, a widely prevalent one called Campylobacter jejuni, apparently hails from industrial poultry and cattle farms.

"Essentially, industrial feedlots are generating bugs that our antibiotics can’t treat. Uh … maybe it’s time to regulate antibiotic use for livestock?"

Russ Krammer didn’t want to wait around for that so he started farming antibiotic free hogs in the great outdoors, the only way that really reduces the risk of viruses and bacteria developing. He’s now the president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

Unsurprisingly, governments are protecting the big players from the little guys like Russ, explains The Bovine:

"Millions of Euros in subsidies are changing the agricultural landscape of Eastern Europe, rendering small farms no longer ‘economic’ in contrast to the new highly-subsidized branch-plant animal factories of global operators like Smithfield."

If we want our governments to get together and regulate the global pork industry, we’ll have a fight on our hands predicts Toad, one of the contributors to New Zealand site g.blog:

"Wouldn’t it be great to see an end to the torture of pigs in factory pig farms? Just change the code and/or the Animal Welfare Act, prohibit the importation of pig meat that cannot be certified as free range, and it could be done overnight. Right?

"Um, no, wrong!

"The problem is the WTO. We can’t under the WTO prohibit the importation of factory farmed pig meat without facing punitive retaliatory action. WTO rules supersede our national sovereignty in that regard."

If we’re waiting to take our cues from the US on emissions trading, we might be waiting a whole lot longer for international consensus on factory farming. We’ll see you in the Thunder Dome. In the meantime, ponder this: what would George Orwell’s Animal Farm, that great vision of totalitarianism and venality, have looked like if it were set in a factory farm?

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