Wuntha (kaskazi) wrote in ecologists,

Food production systems

I guess this is essentially an ecological issue.

New from GRAIN
April 2009



Mexico is in the midst of a hellish repeat of Asia's bird flu experience,
though on a more deadly scale. Once again, the official response from public
authorities has come too late and bungled in cover-ups. And once again, the
global meat industry is at the centre of the story, ramping up denials as
the weight of evidence about its role grows. Just five years after the start
of the H5N1 bird flu crisis, and after as many years of a global strategy
against influenza pandemics coordinated by the World Health Organisation
(WHO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the world is now
reeling from a swine flu disaster. The global strategy has failed and needs
to be replaced with a public health system that the public can trust.

What we know about the situation in Mexico is that, officially speaking,
more than 150 people have died from a new strain of swine flu that is, in
fact, a genetic cocktail of pig, bird and human influenza strains. It has
evolved to a form that is easily spread from human to human and is capable
of killing perfectly healthy people. We do not know where exactly this
genetic recombination and evolution took place, but the obvious place to
start looking is in the factory farms of Mexico and the US. [1]

Experts have been warning for years that the rise of large-scale factory
farms in North America has created the perfect breeding grounds for the
emergence and spread of new highly-virulent strains of influenza. "Because
concentrated animal feeding operations tend to concentrate large numbers of
animals close together, they facilitate rapid transmission and mixing of
viruses," said scientists from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in
2006. [2] Three years earlier, Science Magazine warned that swine flu was on
a new evolutionary "fast track" due to the increasing size of factory farms
and the widespread use of vaccines in these operations. [3] It's the same
story with bird flu. The crowded and unsanitary conditions of the farms make
it possible for the virus to recombine and take on new forms very easily.
Once this happens, the centralised nature of the industry ensures that the
disease gets carried far and wide, whether by feces, feed, water or even the
boots of workers. [4] Yet, according to the US Centres for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC), "no formal national surveillance system exists to
determine what viruses are prevalent in the US swine population." [5] The
same is true of Mexico.


Another thing we know about the swine flu outbreak in Mexico is that the
community of La Gloria in the state of Veracruz was trying to get
authorities to respond to a vicious outbreak of a strange respiratory
disease affecting them over the past months. The residents are adamant that
the disease is linked to pollution from the big pig farm that was recently
set up in the community by Granja Carroll, a subsidiary of the US company
Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer.

After countless efforts by the community to get the authorities to help --
efforts which led to the arrest of several community leaders and death
threats against people speaking out against the Smithfield operations --
local health officials finally decided to investigate in late 2008. Tests
revealed that more than 60 per cent of the community of 3,000 people were
infected by a respiratory disease, but officials did not confirm what the
disease was. Smithfield denied any connection with its operations. It was
only on 27 April 2009, days after the federal government officially
announced the swine flu epidemic, that information came out in the press
revealing that the first case of swine flu diagnosed in the country was of a
4-year old boy from the community of La Gloria on April 2, 2009. Mexico's
Minister of Health says a sample taken from the boy was the only sample
taken from the community that Mexican officials retained and sent for
laboratory testing, which later confirmed that it was swine flu. [6] This
despite the fact that a private risk assessment firm in the US, Veratect,
had notified regional officials from the WHO about the outbreaks of the
powerful respiratory illness in La Gloria in early April 2009. [7]

On 4 April 2009, the Mexican daily La Jornada published an article on the
struggle of the community of La Gloria, with a photo in which a young boy is
holding a placard at a demonstration with a picture of a pig crossed out and
the words "Danger: Carrolls Farm" written on it in Spanish. [8]

About influenza pandemics in general, we know that proximity of factory pig
farms and factory poultry farms increases the risks of viral recombination
and the emergence of new virulent flu strains. Pigs held near to chicken
farms in Indonesia, for instance, are known to have high-levels of infection
from H5N1, the deadly variant of bird flu. [9] Scientists from the NIH warn
"that increasing the numbers of swine facilities adjacent to avian
facilities could further promote the evolution of the next pandemic." [10]

While it has not been widely reported, the region around the community of La
Gloria is also home to many large poultry farms. Recently, in September
2008, there was an outbreak of bird flu among poultry in the region. At the
time, veterinary authorities assured the public that it was only a local
incidence of a low-pathogenic strain affecting backyard birds. But we now
know, thanks to a disclosure made by Marco Antonio Núñez López, the
President of the Environmental Commission of the State of Veracruz, that
there was also an avian flu outbreak on a factory farm about 50 kilometres
from La Gloria owned by Mexico's largest poultry company, Granjas Bachoco,
that was not revealed because of fears of what it might mean for Mexico's
export markets. [11] It should be noted that a common ingredient in
industrial animal feed is "poultry litter", which is a mixture of everything
found on the floor of factory poultry farms: fecal matter, feathers,
bedding, etc

Could there be a more ideal situation for the emergence of a pandemic
influenza virus than a poor rural area, full of factory farms owned by
transnational corporations who care nothing for the well-being of the local
people? The residents of La Gloria have tried for years to resist the
Smithfield farm. And they tried for months to get authorities to do
something about the strange illness hitting their people. They were ignored.
Their voices did not register a single blip on the radar of the WHO's global
emerging disease surveillance system. Nor did the bird flu outbreaks in
Veracruz trigger a response from the OIE's global disease alert system. News
only broke out haphazardly from private sources. [12] This is what passes
for global surveillance.


It is not the first time and it will not be the last time that corporate
farms conceal disease outbreaks and put people's lives at risk. It is the
nature of their business. A couple of years ago in Romania, Smithfield
refused to let local authorities enter its pig farms after residents
complained of the stench coming from hundreds of dead corpses of pigs left
rotting for days at the farms. "Our doctors have not had access to the
American [company's] farms to effect routine inspections," said Csaba
Daroczi, assistant director at the Timisoara Hygiene and Veterinary
Authority. "Every time they tried, they were pushed away by the guards.
Smithfield proposed that we sign an agreement that would oblige us to warn
them three days before each inspection." [13] Eventually, it emerged that
Smithfield had been concealing a major outbreak of classical swine fever on
its Romanian farms. [14]

In Indonesia, where people are still dying from bird flu and where many
health experts believe the next pandemic virus will emerge, authorities can
still not enter large corporate farms without the permission of the company.
[15] In Mexico, authorities deflected calls to investigate La Granja Carroll
and accused the residents of La Gloria of spreading infection because "they
use home remedies instead of going to the health centres to cure their flu."

Factory farms are time-bombs for global disease epidemics. Yet, there are
still no programmes in place to deal with them, not even programmes of
independent disease surveillance. Nobody on high seems to care, and it's
probably no coincidence that these farms tend to be located amongst the
poorest communities, who suffer dearly to get the truth out. Worse still, so
much of our food supply now comes from this bloated system that the main
task of government food safety agencies now seems to be to calm fears and
keep people eating. Smithfield is already on the financial brink and just
last week was negotiating for China's largest agribusiness company, COFCO,
to take it over. [17]

In the meantime, the pharmaceutical industry is making a killing from the
crisis. The US government has already opened an emergency window in its
authorisation system to allow antivirals like Tamiflu and Relaxin to be used
more widely on flu sufferers than allowed. This is great news for Roche,
Gilead and Glaxo SmithKline, who hold monopolies on the drugs. But even more
importantly, a swathe of smaller vaccine producers like Biocryst and Novavax
are seeing their share prices shoot through the roof. [18] Novavax is trying
to convince both CDC and the Mexican government that it can come up with a
swine flu vaccine in as little as 12 weeks if the testing rules remain


Clearly, the global system for dealing with health problems brought on by
the transnational food industry is completely upside down. Its surveillance
system is a bust, frontline public health and veterinarian services are in a
shambles and authority has been handed over to the private sector, which has
every interest in maintaining the status quo. Meanwhile, people are told to
keep indoors and to keep their fingers crossed for Tamiflu or a new vaccine
that they may or may not get access to. This is not a tolerable situation;
action for a sea change is needed, now.

In the specific case of the swine flu epidemic in Mexico, change can start
with an immediate, transparent and thorough independent investigation of
corporate pig and poultry farms in Veracruz, across the country and
throughout North America. The people of Mexico need to know the source of
the problem so that they can take adequate measures to cut the epidemic off
at its roots and to ensure that it does not reoccur.

At the international level, the expansion of factory farms has to stop and
be put into reverse. They are the hotbeds for pandemics and will continue to
be so as long as they exist. It is probably pointless to call for a complete
shift in the WHO-led global strategy, since the experience with bird flu
demonstrates that neither the WHO, nor the OIE, nor most governments are
going to take a hard line on corporate farming. Once again, it is people who
are going to have to take the lead and protect themselves. Across the world,
there are thousands of communities fighting against factory farms. These
communities are on the front lines of pandemic prevention. What we now need
is to turn these local fights against factory farms into a global movement
to abolish them.

But the swine flu disaster in Mexico is also about a larger public health
problem. The threats to consumer safety that are an inherent part of the
industrial food system are compounded by a global trend to completely
privatise health care, which has destroyed the capacities of public systems
to properly respond to crises, and by policies to encourage migration to
mega-cities where sanitation and public health policies are woefully
inadequate. (The outbreak of swine flu hit Mexico City, a metropolis of more
than 20 million people, just as the government cut off water supplies for
much of the city's population, particularly the poorest sections.) The fact
that surveillance of disease outbreaks has to come from private consultancy
firms, that governments and UN agencies can sit quiet on that information
and that we have to depend on a handful of drug companies to produce
half-tested but fully-patented relief for our suffering should tell us that
things have gone too far. We need not only food but public health systems
that truly have some public agenda and public accountability to them.



Silvia Ribeiro, "Epidemia de lucro," La Jornada, 28 April 2009:

Edward Hammond, Indonesia fights to change WHO rules on flu vaccines,
Seedling, April 2009: http://www.grain.org/seedling/?id=593

Mike Davis, The swine flu crisis lays bare the meat industry's monstrous
power, The Guardian, 27 April 2009:

R G Wallace, "The Agro-Industrial Roots of Swine Flu H1N1," 26 April 2009

See the GRAIN resources page on bird flu for the following articles

GRAIN, "Bird flu in eastern India: another senseless slaughter", Against the
grain, February 2008, http://www.grain.org/articles/?id=35

GRAIN, "Germ warfare - Livestock disease, public health and the military --
industrial complex", Seedling, January 2008,

GRAIN, "Viral times - The politics of emerging global animal diseases",
Seedling, January 2008, http://www.grain.org/seedling/?id=532

GRAIN, "Bird flu: a bonanza for 'Big Chicken'", Against the grain, March
2007, http://www.grain.org/articles/?id=22 (also available in Bahasa

GRAIN, "The top-down global response to bird flu," Against the grain, April
2006, http://www.grain.org/articles/?id=12

GRAIN, "Fowl play: The poultry industry's central role in the bird flu
crisis", GRAIN Briefing, February 2006,



1. The pig industry in Mexico, like its counterpart in the US, does not want
the disease to be called "swine flu" on the grounds that it is being
transmitted not from pigs but directly between people. (Their main concern,
of course, is a pork market that is fast collapsing from the stigma.) And
some Mexican officials, like the Governor of Veracruz, are telling the
public that the virus came from China though there is no evidence to support
this claim.

2. Mary J. Gilchrist, Christina Greko, David B. Wallinga, George W. Beran,
David G. Riley and Peter S. Thorne, "The Potential Role of CAFOs in
Infectious Disease Epidemics and Antibiotic Resistance," Journal of
Environmental Health Perspectives, 14 November 2006.

3. Bernice Wuethrich, "Chasing the Fickle Swine Flu", Science, Vol. 299,

4. Pro-poor Livestock Policy Initiative, "Industrial Livestock Production
and Global Health Risks," FAO, 2007:

5. CDC, April 21, 2009 / 58 (Dispatch);1-3:

6. Andrés T. Morales, "Cerco sanitario en Perote, tras muerte en marzo de
bebé por gripe porcina," La Jornada, 28 April 2009:
Tracy Wilkinson and Cecilia Sánchez, "Mexico tries to focus on source of
infection," Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2009.

7. Dudley Althaus, "World's queries have no answers," Houston Chronicle, 27
April 2009.

8. Andrés Timoteo, "Alerta epidemiológica en Perote por brote de males
respiratorios," La Jornada, 4 April 2009.

9. David Cyranoski, "Bird flu spreads among Java's pigs," Nature 435, 26 May

10. Mary J. Gilchrist, Christina Greko, David B. Wallinga, George W. Beran,
David G. Riley and Peter S. Thorne, "The Potential Role of CAFOs in
Infectious Disease Epidemics and Antibiotic Resistance," Journal of
Environmental Health Perspectives, 14 November 2006.

11. Piden cerco sanitario ante epidemia, SPI/ElGolfo.Info, 24 April 2009:

12. Tom Philpott first broadcast the possible connection between the swine
flu outbreak and the Smithfield operation in Veracruz from his US-based blog
on 25 April 2009:

13. Mirel Bran: "Swine Plague: Romania Criticizes American Group's
Attitude", Le Monde, 15 August 2007, translated by Leslie Thatcher

14. GRAIN, "Viral times - The politics of emerging global animal diseases",
Seedling, January 2008

15. See "Box 2. Bird flu in Indonesia and Vietnam" (by GRAIN) in Edward
Hammond, "Indonesia fights to change WHO rules on flu vaccines," Seedling,
April 2009: http://www.grain.org/seedling/?id=593

16. "Afectados por extraña enfermedad, 60% de pobladores de La Gloria," La
Jornada 27 April 2009:

17. "Is Smithfield on the market?", Farming UK, 26 April 2009.

18. "Smaller drug firms gaining from swine flu," Reuters, 27 April 2009:
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