Thursday, April 30, 2009

Do Factory Farms Have Anything to do with Swine Flu?

JenMuch is still unknown about the recent outbreak of swine flu (now being called H1N1), including the source of the virus. While the first human thought to be infected has been identified, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) have not yet isolated the virus in a pig, either in Mexico or the U.S. The first known human infection was a five year old boy who lives in La Gloria, Mexico, where U.S.-based Smithfield operates a confined animal feeding operation (CAFO) that raises nearly 1,000,000 hogs annually.

The child, who survived, is said to have had no contact with hogs, the CAFO, or its workers. But members of the community are convinced that H1N1 is linked to the factory farm that has recently begun operating in their midst, bringing lagoons of untreated pig waste, piles of dead pigs and swarms of flies.

While we cannot yet jump to the conclusion that this new virus was caused by industrial farming practices, we do know that CAFOs like this one in Mexico provide the perfect circumstances under which viruses like H1N1 develop.

A 2003 article in Science Magazine warned, "The North American swine flu virus has jumped onto an evolutionary fast track, churning out variants each year. Changes in animal husbandry, including increased vaccination, may be spurring this evolutionary surge." Smithfield claims that they haven't found any evidence of H1N1 in hogs or workers at any of their operations, and they cite routine vaccination of hogs for influenza as proof of their precaution. But as Science Magazine pointed out, vaccination can in fact lead to new, more virulent viruses that put humans in grave danger.

In 2006, scientists from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) said, "Because concentrated animal feeding operations tend to concentrate large numbers of animals close together, they facilitate rapid transmission and mixing of viruses." Scientists have warned that locating concentrated hog operations in the proximity of concentrated poultry facilities increases the potential for inter-species viral mixing and increased virulence. This new strain of influenza is said to be a mix of pig, human and bird viruses (although this too is unknown, since now there are reports that the virus is 100% hog-derived), so it's worth pointing out that La Gloria is also home to many industrial poultry farms

Regardless of how it originated, the so-called swine flu is now being transmitted from human to human. For information about how to protect yourself, visit the CDC website.

As I mentioned, there are still many unknowns but what we do know clearly is that we need a thorough and transparent investigation of the Smithfield-operated CAFO in La Gloria and a real look into the dangers of our industrial food system all over the world. We'll keep you posted as this story unfolds.

Since its beginnings in 1985, Farm Aid has recognized the danger of industrial farming to rural communities, family farmers, the environment, and our health. In 1995, the fight against factory hog farms was launched in Lincoln Township, Missouri, where more than 3,000 family farmers joined Willie Nelson in protesting at a Premium Standard Farms hog mega-farm. Since that time, Farm Aid has continued to support community efforts to stop the construction of factory farms and promote the alternative -- a family farm-based agriculture that respects and enriches our communities, farmers, the environment, and our health.

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