Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Pigs, Pandemics and Polemics

Gwynne Dyer is a military and Middle East historian whose books include a major study "War", first published in the 1980s, completely revised and re-published in 2004 and a trio of more contemporary books dealing with the politics and strategy of the post-9/11 world: 'Ignorant Armies' (2003), 'Future: Tense' (2004), and 'The Mess They Made' (2006). I have read and enjoyed all of them. He also writes a very outspoken twice weekly column on international affairs.

On May 16, his column “Of Pandemics and Pork” attempted to paint a dismal future for mankind, filled with epidemics such as the current swine flu, more properly known as A-H1N1. He says epidemics will happen with increasing frequency (he “guesses 10 times”) brought on by factory farms which concentrate huge numbers of animals, thus increasing the chances that a disease will jump from animals to humans.

Dyer is extrapolating from Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs and Steel”. Diamond explains that all of mankind’s killer epidemics pretty much began once we domesticated animals some 10,000 years ago and began living with them cheek by jowl. Every few hundred years a major killer epidemic swept the earth. Smallpox, bubonic plague, etc. The flu epidemic of 1918 being the most recent, with a few scares thrown in since then.

Veterinarian Dr. Bruce King countered the column in an article in the Salt Lake Tribune pointing out that all of the animal to human epidemics to date including A-H1N1 have originated outside modern farming practices. Where animals (including humans) are crowded together in close proximity, the risk of disease spreading increases. That is why the factory farms use strict bio-security, to prevent disease from entering the premises in the first place. All-in; all-out production practices, plus fast population turn over help prevent disease from ever establishing long enough to do any serious mutating.

Dr. King touches on but does not elaborate the key issue. Several of our recent (almost) epidemics (Asian Flu, Hong Kong Flu, Bird Flu, etc. originated in SE Asia where huge numbers of people and huge numbers of animals and birds live in very close association. What is missing on the factory farms are people. Lots of animals or birds but very few people relative to “traditional” agricultural practices.

Factory farms may facilitate inter-animal disease transmission but are actually far safer for species to species transmission of disease than traditional agriculture. Dyer got it wrong. His prejudices are showing badly.

6 comments:

  1. I'd say be prepared for some "eccentrics" to come out of the wood work for this one.

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  2. I've found the best meats from very small farms. I do worry about mad cow. Much of the problem with swine flu came from a factory farm in Mexico that was a part of Smithfield and American. Got to watch those greedy capitalists.

    On those 737s you'll be happy to know that Boeing made special landing gear for planes sold in Russia. Not wanting to spend the money on runways the Russians had Boeing design beefed up landing gear. Now don't you feel better?

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  3. To emphasize one of your points, "reverse zoonosis" is always a problem. That's where the animals get diseases from people.

    Important as well: "What is missing on the factory farms are people. Lots of animals or birds but very few people relative to “traditional” agricultural practices."

    Likewise: "Several of our recent (almost) epidemics (Asian Flu, Hong Kong Flu, Bird Flu, etc. originated in SE Asia where huge numbers of people and huge numbers of animals and birds live in very close association." Not just South-East Asia, but other emerging nations with generally low-level bio-security.

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  4. Demeur: Dr King's article states (Dyer)insinuates that this novel A-H1N1 virus developed in a factory farm setting. The specific farm
    implicated was Granjas Carroll de Mexico farm in Vera Cruz, Mexico. But on May 14, the Mexican Ministry
    of Agriculture, Ranching, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food confirmed that the A-H1N1 virus was not detected in pigs at that farm and that the pigs tested negative for other viruses as well.

    Forget BSE. In USA there are over 300 deaths each year from the regular variety of KJD. Nobody has yet died of KJDv.

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  5. And how much did Smithfield pay him to report that? You know almost nothing gets done in Mexico without bribes and Smithfield has some deep pockets.

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  6. Possible but not probable.
    The pig farm had nothing to gain or lose from an accurate report.
    The anti-agriculture folks were just as likely to have bribed the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture to have produced a condemning report as it would "prove" their hypothesis. That didn't happen either.

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