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Swine Flu: The Vegan Connection

the swineLast week, President Obama declared swine flu (H1N1) a national emergency.  This declaration allows the Secretary of Health and Human Services to waive federal rules for hospitals.  This, in turn, allows hospitals to commandeer alternative sites as treatment areas for H1N1 patients. Even the Colombian president, Alvaro Uribe, has come down with a bout. In the US, 11 million doses of the H1N1 vaccine have so far been distributed, providing tidy profits for producers GlaxoSmithKline (Pandemrix) and Baxter (Celvapan). Understanding the vegan connection to swine flu is essential to understand how it was spread, and how to prevent future pathogens from becoming public health disasters.

The current swine flu story begins in Vera Cruz, Mexico, but beyond that the details seem quite hazy. This is unsuprising. Influenza seems to be a part of life and epidemics an occasional fact of history, and our collective consciousness has treated swine flu accordingly. In 1918, the H1N1 pathogen killed between 50 and 100 million around the world.  These influenza strains seem to just pop up out of nowhere every so often, and this time it just happened to pop up in Mexico. Despite the swine flu containing human and bird influenza components, pigs have unwittingly been implicated as among the biggest public health villians in recent history.  The question inevitably arises: what did the piggies do?

Professor of Anthropology, Robert Wallace, author of the recently-released book ‘Farming Human Pathogens: Ecological Resistance and Evolutionary Process’, describes swine flu as the ‘NAFTA flu’, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement, a liberalising arrangement between Canada, the US, and Mexico. The argument goes that prior to NAFTA, livestock farming in Mexico resembled pre-World War Two US livestock farming.  That is, Mexico’s farming was in small, family operations, with populations of about 20 to 60 animals. After World War Two, US farms merged into larger corporate entities while animal populations where condensed into smaller areas and larger numbers, with populations around 30,000. In 1994, when NAFTA entered into force, subsidised US agribusiness corporations started buying up small farms throughout Mexico, making the most of weak environmental regulations to build these larger and dirtier pork cities throughout that country. These large industrial farms are hotbeds for the development of pathogens like swine flu, as Wallace explains:

…industrial livestock appear ideal populations for supporting virulent pathogens. Growing genetic monocultures removes whatever immune firebreaks may be available to slow down transmission. Larger population sizes and densities facilitate greater rates of transmission. Such crowded conditions depress immune response. High turnover, a part of any industrial production, provides a continually renewed supply of susceptibles, the fuel for the evolution of virulence.

The drive to produce ever-cheaper sources of meat has created conditions in which these virulent pathogens thrive, and the massive populations provide ideal grounds by which these pathogens can spread easily.

One of President Obama’s campaign pledges was the renegotiation of NAFTA, and in recent meetings with the Mexican President Felipe Calderon it was one of the three major issues discussed (along with immigration and Mexico’s bloody drug war). However the profound influence of the economic crisis and public consciousness has relieved pressure to reform, and renegotiation is off the table for now. NAFTA is problematic for a large number of reasons that are outside the scope of this entry, but the damage it has done to the lives of millions of animals and many humans by the development of pig cities is a matter of immediate international concern. Of course, the simplest solution to preventing another epidemic of this kind is the promotion and adoption of veganism and vegetarianism. Obama’s got a lot on his plate at the moment, so why don’t we try and take the pork chops off so he can rest a bit easier?

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Discussion

4 thoughts on “Swine Flu: The Vegan Connection

  1. Now I feel like I’m repeating myself….. (per my comments yesterday). I agree with the general sentiment. The connection between factory farms and epidemic is strong. I just worry a touch about making it sound absolute. There have been a number of major epidemics throughout history that jumped from animal to human without factory farms being present. No question that your primary point is strong – factory farms increase the risk of these illnesses occurring, and act as breeding grounds for disease. It’s just that we should be careful not to overstate matters and suggest that ridding the world of factory farms will somehow eradicate major diseases from developing in animals and jumping to humans.

    Overall though, the point’s well taken and another reason to reduce or eliminate our reliance on farm animals.

    Posted by Peter Sankoff | 4 November 2009, 7:24 pm
  2. Good comment Peter – I understand your contention, and I don’t mean to argue that the connection is absolute. Wallace’s essential argument is with NAFTA – that the NAFTA created the economic and legal conditions that created an ideal breeding ground for more virulent pathogens. I agree with Wallace, however I think this phenomenon isn’t unique to NAFTA, or to Mexican farms, but an incident of factory farming in general. Factory farms create ideal conditions for these pathogens to breed, since genetic exchange is minimised and the numbers involved are so great that the diseases can spread easily, developing their own resistance more quickly.

    As you say, ridding the world of factory farms won’t rid the world of diseases that develop in animals and jumping over to humans. The issue lies in prevention – if we want to prevent the likelihood of these similar epidemics, then eradicating factory farming is an ideal measure.

    Posted by Edward Miller | 5 November 2009, 8:52 am
  3. There is probably a greater causal link if there are factory farms than if there aren’t. But there is little if any relationship between factory farming and epidemics like AIDS, which is thought to have a animal-to-human genesis. So perhaps these crossover pandemics have something to teach us about the relationship of humans with animals?

    Posted by Tania | 5 November 2009, 5:27 pm

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