The current outbreak of Swine Flu may have captured international headlines, but it has done surprisingly little to focus attention on the role of intensive animal production in contributing to the spread of infections.
That influenza can infect pigs has been known since 1930, and there has been gathering scientific awareness of the plausibility of a Swine-Avian-Human Flu outbreak, accelerated if not “incubated” by concentrated animal feeding operations.
Yet this body of knowledge and concern has not translated into sufficient awareness of the potential hazards of such operations, or action to reduce the risks. Little attention was given to the first report of the outbreak of an unusually severe epidemic of pneumonia in a poor area of Mexico near to an intensive pig operation.
No doubt this is because of the powerful influence of corporations and others with an interest in such industries — witness how efforts to rename Swine Flu, to distract attention from the industry involved, were endorsed even by the WHO.
It is also noteworthy that a long lead article on Swine Flu in one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, the New England Journal of Medicine, entirely ignores such issues.
Concentrated animal feeding operations pose other public health risks, including as incubators of lesser known viral diseases including Nipah virus and Ebola Reston, both of which are spread from bats, themselves increasingly stressed by pressure from human populations growing in number, power, and expectations.
Such operations have many other downsides but I don’t see them as the root cause of problems such as Swine Flu.
The underlying issue is the size of the world’s population. Concentrated animal feeding operations, though cruel and unethical, are the cheapest way to produce meat on the scale needed to provide adequate (though, likely, far from optimal) nutrition for the 6.8 billion people currently alive.
Almost certainly, such operations will remain in existence in some form for decades.
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Organic or more humane forms of farming, if on a scale sufficient to feed us all, is unlikely to more environmentally friendly and in fact it would probably be worse. Like it or not, intensive farms achieve this through economies of scale, at the price of animal cruelty and risks to human health.
Instead we need to reduce our total animal produce consumption, and to do that humanely and without harming health, we need to reduce our human population.
While, at the very worst case, a pandemic could occasionally claim millions of lives, this would likely only trim the annual increase in global population, estimated to now be at least 75 million per annum. It would be far better to lower global population growth through means such as universal education for girls.
Colin Butler is Associate Professor at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at ANU.