Saturday, May 02, 2009

Inhumane pig conditions are incubator for swine flu

I think each of us knows when something is "not right", which I guess is what you might call "immoral" but that seems so judgemental. But regardless, what I've seen is that often our intuition is telling us something that our rational mind can, well, rationalize.

What I've noticed is that often, when we instinctively know something is not right, often we find out it's true when the unforeseen consequences arise. The latest example of this theme comes from an excellent article in Wired magazine (thanks @larrybrilliant), where they describe in detail how the swine flu now spreading through the world had its origins in insanely packed pig farms:

At an environmental level, the conditions which shaped H3N2 and H1N2 evolution, and increased the variants’ chances of taking a human-contagious form, are well understood. High-density animal production facilities came to dominate the U.S. pork industry during the late 20th century, and have been adopted around the world. Inside them, pigs are packed so tightly that they cannot turn, and literally stand in their own waste.

Diseases travel rapidly through such immunologically stressed populations, and travel with the animals as they are shuttled throughout the United States between birth and slaughter. That provides ample opportunity for strains to mingle and recombine. An ever-escalating array of industry-developed vaccines confer short-term protection, but at the expense of provoking flu to evolve in unpredictable ways.

The horrible packing of pigs for slaughter, standing in their own excrement, combined with an "ever-escalating array of ... vaccines." Sounds horrible, it seems wrong, and as we see, there are consequences.

The world lives in such a beautiful balance, each thing complementing the other in this intricate array of interdependencies. Then we take our logical, rational mind and deconstruct some piece of it and think we can get away with changing it for some increase in efficiency or productivity, without any "unforeseen" consequences.

I really am not interested in placing judgmental or moral overtones on this. This is not about God punishing sinners or some such rot. To me it's more about God's beautiful intricate creation, and how the depth and richness and complexity of it can never be fathomed by the human mind, and if anything I find myself shaking my head at our hubris in thinking we can push things to their limits like this and not expect consequences.

This is why whenever I hear some industry talking head saying how something is "perfectly safe" and "all studies have shown there are no harmful side effects" for some strange mutilation of the natural order (such as fake sugar and fake fat, or massive vaccinations of children, or the heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers) I just go "yeah, right, uh-huh" and wait for the next shoe to drop, which it invariably does ten, twenty, or fifty years later.


Neil's Dev Stuff said...

As we say in England when we agree with something, hear, hear !

We are all being asked to be involved with corporate responsibility, which in the current financial business world seems completely non existent.

Moral responsibility, regardless of religious, or other believes seems to have also gone too. (I am not religious at all either).

It just seems to me that basic common sense as a skill is being lost, know what I am saying here?

Anyway, I will stop ranting, well done for shouting about this....

Unknown said...

Well, The virus started in Mexico and not the US and spread through person to person contact. So... comments on the US pork industry don't really apply. Or at least you should mention the facts more clearly. Such as "Although the virus originated in Mexico, it is believed to come from pigs at a farm run by a us based company".

But in all what you say is pretty much spot on as a criticism. But there aren't many practical solutions to the problem. Most of the practices you have mentioned lower the cost of meat. So we have to decide what level of conditions combined with what price of meat is acceptable?

Unknown said...

Hm, it makes meat cheaper, you say. It seems to me that Mexico and the USA and many other countries are paying through the nose because of the consequences of these kinds of practices, not to mention the lost lives. I think a lot of economics used these days are false economics because they don't take into account crucial costs that come downstream, be it pandemics or global warming.

I don't have a clear answer, but I would love to see a way for these downstream costs to be explicitly added into the overall cost-benefit evaluation that motivates these kinds of out-of-whack business models. The pig farmers should be paying for the lost days at work, lost business (tourism and other) and lost lives that have come as a result of their "economic" decisions.