The World Health Organization has declared swine flu a global pandemic, given its geographic scope and the fact that it appears to be unstoppable. The flu has been reported in 74 countries…and counting (13,000 reported cases in the U.S.; about 100 so far in China, but many more may be uncounted). Its origins, though, still remain a mystery. A locus of attention is a large hog producing facility in Vera Cruz, Mexico, run by a subsidiary of U.S. protein giant Smithfield Foods. The first cases of swine flu were found in Vera Cruz, and residents have complained for years about the facility’s stench and pollution (probably about average for factory farms). This piece, from Grist.org, investigates a possible connection. The Worldwatch Institute’s Danielle Nierenberg was recently in Mexico, briefing the Mexican Congress about swine flu and also meeting with environmental, food and animal welfare activists. Read her blogs about the trip and the origins of the flu here. Here’s an excerpt from Nierenberg’s Congressional testimony on the origins of the flu, and what it means — or should — for public health and environmental policy:
While the connection between the Granjas Carroll industrial pig operation in Vera Cruz, Mexico (a Smithfield Foods subsidiary) and the emergence of H1N1 is circumstantial, there is some evidence to suggest that factory farming practices are to blame. Crowded conditions and the genetic uniformity of animals on factory farms make them ideal incubators for disease. Furthermore, the overuse and misuse of antibiotics to combat these diseases create multidrug-resistant bacteria, making it harder to fight illness among animals and humans alike.
As we raise more animals in industrial-style operations, confining them by the tens of thousands, it is likely that we will see other diseases emerging and jumping the species barrier from animals to humans. Because of their genetic similarity to humans, pigs and chickens often serve as “mixing vessels” for various diseases, stirring up their genetic traits and making them easier to pass along.
As we brace for the next wave of the swine flu pandemic, perhaps we will all become more aware of the conditions under which more than 40 percent of the world’s nearly 1 billion pigs are raised. Ultimately, we must realize that how we raise animals for food is inherently linked to our own health and the health of our environment.