Swine Flu, Bird Flu and BSE: Three Legacies of Factory Farming E-mail
Friday, 29 March 2013 00:00  |  Written by Dawn Marshallsay | Article

Chickens at Factory Farm photo by Mike RosenbergThe new strain of bird flu now spreading in China has raised renewed concerns about Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) AKA factory farms. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), "About 75% of the new diseases that have affected humans over the past 10 years have been caused by pathogens originating from an animal or from products of animal origin."

Swine flu, bird flu and BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, widely known as mad-cow disease) are the most well-known plagues caused by factory farming and poor animal welfare—there are others. And because illnesses spread quickly between animals reared in tight spaces on cannibalistic diets, it’s only a matter of time before other such viruses mutate into strains that can infect humans working on or living near factory farms—and then spread to the rest of us.

Swine Flu
The 2009 swine-flu pandemic is thought to have originated from the open-air ‘manure lagoons’ of a pig farm near La Gloria, Mexico, 155 miles east of Mexico City, where residents suffer from sewage odors and respiratory problems, as well. Partly owned by Virginia-based Smithfield Foods—the world’s largest producer of pork products—the Granjas Carroll de Mexico facility raises nearly one million pigs a year.

Swine flu, or influenza A (H1N1), is thought to have started with a pig contracting a mixture of bird and human flu, which then spread to a human. Early signs in humans include fever, headaches and diarrhea.

It’s not difficult for an intensively farmed pig to catch the flu. Pregnant sows are chained into single stalls without bedding or space to move around. Known as sow stalls in Europe and gestation crates in America, such stalls will be banned in the EU after four weeks of pregnancy beginning in January 2013, and are already illegal in Sweden, the UK and Florida, Arizona and California in the US.

Bird Flu
Wild birds have always carried avian influenza viruses, but intensive poultry farms provide the ideal conditions for viruses to spread and mutate into more virulent, highly pathogenic avian influenza strains (HPAI), such as the outbreak in China in 2005.

Disease spreads quickly when thousands of birds are packed into a warm, dusty environment, standing on layers of excrement and feathers. The genetic uniformity of breeds used in intensive farming, chosen for their fast growth and high volume of meat, also lowers the chance of natural immunity.

While many countries have periodically ordered their free-range poultry indoors to prevent contact with wild birds, the spread of H5N1 from China to Europe, Africa and the Middle East followed major road and rail routes rather than the migration patterns of wild birds.

The increase in numbers of HPAIs over the last decade also coincides with the 300% increase in worldwide poultry production over the last two decades, and an increase of almost 900% in China since 1980.

BSE
BSE spreads between animals and humans through the consumption of infected meat rather than airborne viruses. The feeding of dead cows to live ones is a major contributor to the rapid spread of the illness. And it is just one part of a growing concern over the contents of animal feed—including growth hormones and antibiotics—passing up the food chain to humans.

BSE causes cows’ brains to waste away, and spreads when they are fed bovine tissues contaminated with BSE. Humans who eat infected beef develop the human variant, CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), which lies dormant for many years before producing symptoms similar to dementia, and eventually death.

A new form called variant CJD (vCJD), discovered in the UK in March 1996, has been disproportionately affecting younger patients (a median age of 29 instead of 65). From October 1996 to November 2002, 129 cases of vCJD were reported in the UK, six in France and one each in Canada, Ireland, Italy and the US.

Beyond Disease
Beyond the scourge of infectious diseases, factory farms have other environmentally deleterious effects. Animal waste gives off the air pollutants ammonia and hydrogen sulphide, which cause respiratory problems and form acid rain, poisoning water supplies and vegetation. According to a US Environmental Protection Agency study reported by the Sierra Club, hog, chicken and cattle waste has polluted 35,000 miles of US rivers in 22 states, and has contaminated groundwater in 17 of them.

Solutions
Animal waste is the main transmitter of diseases between animals and humans on factory farms. Joyce d’Silva, ambassador for UK campaign group Compassion in World Farming, explains how free-range farming is superior to factory farming in that it produces ‘useful’ manure instead of pollution and contagion: “The gallons of liquid slurry that pour from intensive dairy and pig farms can be replaced by more healthy manure, or if the animals are free-ranging, the manure can serve to fertilize fields naturally. Therefore, less artificial fertilizers would be required and water pollution and air pollution caused by intensive units could be dramatically reduced.”

Growing and buying locally reared food reduces the need for animals to travel, which spreads diseases and increases carbon emissions. It also decreases demand for large-scale food production. Food-localisation initiatives include the international Slow Food Movement and the 100-Mile Diet.

Miniature cattle are also helping to minimize pollution and animal waste. Farmers say the cows eat about half as much as a full-sized animal, yet produce up to 75% of the rib-eyes and fillets, according to The Times. The International Miniature Breeds Registry estimates there are now 20,000 mini-cows in the US, compared to 5,000 a decade ago.

How we treat our feed animals is not only a moral issue.The antibiotics, steroids and other substances we administer to them; the food—including their diseased brothers—we serve them; and the illnesses they contract, are bound to pass onto humans, if not directly through our stomachs, then by way of the air, land and water we share,.Is it worth sacrificing our own health, the animals’ wellbeing and the environment for the sake of marginally increased business profits? If you think not, buying from local, family-owned, free-range and organic farms is an option you should seriously consider.

Additional resources:
The Faint Green Tint of Factory Farms
Avian Influenza Goes Global, But Don’t Blame the Birds
Poultry Genetics, Breeding and Biotechnology by WM Muir and SE Aggrey
Sick Kids and Parental Swine Flu Worries
Swine Flu and CAFOs: Mums the Word

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