Last 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?