Is Industrial Ag to Blame for the Swine Flu?

Could the swine flu be linked to industrial agriculture practices, say keeping thousands of immunosuppressed pigs in tight quarters and then carelessly discharging their effluent? A private biosurveillance tracking firm, Veretect has a timeline of the epidemic originating in the town of La Gloria in the State of Veracruz.

“Residents believed the outbreak had been caused by contamination from pig breeding farms located in the area. They believed that the farms, operated by Granjas Carroll, polluted the atmosphere and local water bodies, which in turn led to the disease outbreak. According to residents, the company denied responsibility for the outbreak and attributed the cases to “flu.” However, a municipal health official stated that preliminary investigations indicated that the disease vector was a type of fly that reproduces in pig waste and that the outbreak was linked to the pig farms. It was unclear whether health officials had identified a suspected pathogen responsible for this outbreak.”

More on this story at Grist and Peak Oil Entrepreneur.

At this point we’re in the wild speculation phase of the swine flu narrative and I’ll add that the press does a particularly bad job with anything that has to do with science. However, we’ve been trying to make the point that distributed agriculture, more people tending small numbers of animals, is most likely a safer practice than large factory farms. The exotic strains of E-coli and swine flu that have emerged in recent years could be the unintended consequence of concentrated animal feeding operations. Time to call the homeowners association and ask them if you can keep a few pigs in that suburban backyard.

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  1. Industrial ag was the first thing I thought of when I heard about the epidemic. The second was how that simple fact was going to get botched or covered up. Remember the spinach scare? guess who was to blame? guess what happened…zilch.

  2. I wish there was an easier way to get people to pay attention to the conditions that could be causing these outbreaks. I fear the average Joe doesn’t see a difference between a backyard pig and a CAFO pig. I can think of a neighbor or two that would freak out at the arrival of a few healthy free range pigs. I’m hopeful that these scares can be used to educate and not drive reactionary laws that limit sub/urban farms.

  3. i’m just waiting to see how the powers that be (the hoa) uses this outbreak to ban my suburban chickens.. all 2 of them. cos after all, they’re a threat to the public health (is this font sarcastic enough?)

  4. I am worried like Gardener and for the same reasons. The CAFOs have such clout and are usually out of the way, so unlikely targets for average joe (who is also usually a reactive idiot who knows nothing not fed through the idiot box). Instead, they’ll target the nice person who grows a healthy and properly socialized and fed pig for their own use. It will set back all our work to bring food back into the towns back years, if not decades. Which makes me wonder…isn’t that awfully convenient.

  5. Fact check! As much as I’d love to blame Big Ag for this one too, the experts say that small ag – traditional subsistence farms – might be a more likely culprit here. Factory farmed pigs or chickens don’t have the opportunity to come into contact with other species and let the viruses do their mutating. Or maybe not. But check out the end of this piece before you blame the usual suspects:

  6. RMD,

    Michael Gregor, director of public health at the humane society in his book Bird Flu makes an interesting point about the devastating 1918 flu epidemic. At that time factory farming did not exist–there were no immunosuppressed livestock packed in tiny cages. However, there were millions of soldiers crammed into tight quarters in trenches, barracks, transport trains etc. In effect, the soldiers were the factory farm that jump started the 1918 pandemic.

    True, a deadly virus could emerge from a small farm, but I’m going to hazard a guess that our fifty year experiment with things like CAFOs could have some unintended and unforeseen consequences. This is wild speculation on my part, I’m happy to admit.

    And speaking of fact checking, in the BoingBoing post you refer to, the guest blogger begins by calling herself an “infectious disease dork” and then goes on to call the “H” and the “N” in H1N1 “genes”. They are in fact enzymes–hemagglutinin and neuraminidase.

  7. We need to remember that without Agriculture, we would have no clothes to wear or food to eat. Give them a break.

  8. I was thinking pretty much the same thing… too many animals in too tight a space. It just doesn’t seem natural and when things don’t seem natural then I think there are more problems, including health problems. I just don’t think that this connection will even be implied at by the mainstream media.

  9. How does a virus, which requires living cells to reproduce, reproduce in pig waste, per the “municipal health official” mentioned above? Sounds like some dubious science.

  10. Okay, speaking as another scientist AGAINST factory farming, but FOR actual facts, allow me to clarify a few things:

    1- Man+Bird+Pig= formula for new flu strain.
    Humans and birds both have species-specific viruses. But these viruses don’t cross the barrier between the two. BUT- pigs are biochemically close enough to BOTH humans and birds that pigs act as a “bridge” to allow the viruses from both birds and humans to cross over to both, mixing together and mutating en route (in the pig) making for a mutation trifecta perfect for creating the next potential pandemic virus.
    You need all three elements for a new flu strain.

    2- Factory farming is usually single species and indoors, meaning that one member of the Man/bird/pig formula is missing.
    Small farms with even just one of each species, however, have the potential to breed a new flu strain. Hong Kong, the home of many, tightly-packed urban farms and markets is the epicenter of flu mutations. In fact, it’s where the WHO goes each spring to get virus samples for making the flu vaccine they’ll use next flu season.

    3- The “ground zero” for the 1918 flu pandemic is suspected to be a rather isolated army base in Europe where the soldiers raised pigs next to a lake where migratory birds rested en route to their spring nesting grounds. Man+bird+pig=new flu strain with specifically virulent genetics. The stressed and crowded population, plus the fact that the base was a shipping/transport station made for a fast spread of the pandemic.

    And honestly, I am an avid fan of urban self-sufficiency, BUT….I would to raise pigs OR chickens. Not both. (And I doubt I’d have the heart to send a pig I raised to slaughter.)
    Single species factory farming, while heinous, is not what causes new flu strains.

  11. Most scientists agree that China is the primary incubator for these strains of the virus AND the most likely place for them to become a human pandemic. Interestingly, for the most part China uses “organic” methods. Hmmmmmm…

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