Self-Inflicted Pandemic?

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. I say it might just be a raging epidemic arising from the virulent combination of modern farming practices, dense populations, and global culture.

Is the H7N9 scare a harbinger of how it will go? Foreign Policy ponders:

At this writing, 108 cases of H7N9 flu, as the new virus has been dubbed, have been confirmed, and one asymptomatic carrier of the virus has been identified. Twenty-two of the cases have proven fatal, and nine people have been cured of the new flu. The remainder are still hospitalized, many in severe condition suffering multiple organ failures. As the flu czar of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Keiji Fukuda, terselyput it to reporters last week, “Anything can happen. We just don’t know.”

On this tenth anniversary of China’s April 2003 admission that the SARS virus had spread across that country — under cloak of official secrecy, spawning a pandemic of a previously unknown, often lethal disease — Beijing finds itself once again in a terrible position via-a-vis the microbial and geopolitical worlds.  In both the SARS and current H7N9 influenza cases, China watched the microbe’s historic path unfold during a period of enormous political change. And the politics got in the way of appropriate threat assessment.

Well worth the full read.

H7N9 Avian Flu “Contagion” Threat Level: Orange

Initially, worries about deaths from H7N9 in China were dismissed as paranoid. But now H979 is at starting to live up to the hype:

Six people are dead from the H7N9 strain of avian flu. The number of infected has grown to to 14. A new scare just hit Hong Kong. The United States has begun early research for a vaccine. And now China has slaughtered 20,000 chickens, ducks, geese, and pigeons — and shut down its live poultry markets — to try and cut off the health risk at the source. So: Is it time to panic yet?

Well, not exactly.

We’re not doctors, obviously, but the people at the World Health Organization said on Friday that they still haven’t found proof of “sustained human-to-human transmission” of [H7N9], reports Reuters. That’s the key difference between this latest scare going from a relatively isolated virus incident into full-fledged Contagion panic. In Hollywood terms, we’re about at the stage where the pig has left the farm but not yet arrived at the table with Gwyneth Paltrow. And while [H7N9] isn’t thought to be quite horror-movie bad, we might be at the point where Kate Winslet is about to get called in: The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta is already working to develop a vaccine, CNN reports, although U.S. and Chinese scientists still haven’t exactly accounted for how humans developed the virus.

In order to stem the tide, China has culled tens of thousands of birds along with a poultry-market shutdown. And while 20,000 animals might seem a lot of stock, well, Mexico had bird flu fears of their own last year and killed 8 million chickens in August as a precaution. So, that’s another good takeaway — provided you are not a duck, goose, or chicken hanging out in Shanghai.

I’d rather see “proof” that there isn’t “sustained human-to-human transmission.” Because absence of proof does not mean absence of  transmission, which presumably why the CDC is going all Kate Winslet and thinking about a vaccine.

Again, whether this plays out as feared or not, get used to this sort of scare. We’ll see it again and again because our livestock practices are nicely set up to create it. Is meat really worth it?

What Came Before–Extended Version

Sorry to start your week off with such a stark, brutal look at pig farming in America. But it is what it is, and anyone who raves about bacon and pork should at least have the courage to know what it takes to put those things on their plate.

This is an extended version of an earlier video from Farm Sanctuary, about a pig named Nicky that escaped from an Iowa factory farm during a flood (apparently natural disasters have freed more than pigs). Before you watch, here’s a little background about pig intelligence and studies that show pigs are able to use mirrors as a tool to find food:

The finding is just one in a series of recent discoveries from the nascent study of pig cognition. Other researchers have found that pigs are brilliant at remembering where food stores are cached and how big each stash is relative to the rest. They’ve shown that Pig A can almost instantly learn to follow Pig B when the second pig shows signs of knowing where good food is stored, and that Pig B will try to deceive the pursuing pig and throw it off the trail so that Pig B can hog its food in peace.

They’ve found that pigs are among the quickest of animals to learn a new routine, and pigs can do a circus’s worth of tricks: jump hoops, bow and stand, spin and make wordlike sounds on command, roll out rugs, herd sheep, close and open cages, play videogames with joysticks, and more. For better or worse, pigs are also slow to forget. “They can learn something on the first try, but then it’s difficult for them to unlearn it,” said Suzanne Held of the University of Bristol. “They may get scared once and then have trouble getting over it.”

Researchers have also found that no matter what new detail they unearth about pig acumen, the public reaction is the same. “People say, ‘Oh yes, pigs really are rather clever, aren’t they?’ ” said Richard W. Byrne, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of St. Andrews. “I would recommend that somebody study sheep or goats rather than pigs, so that people would be suitably impressed to find out your animal is clever.” His feigned frustration notwithstanding, he added, “if you want to understand the evolution of intelligence and social behaviors, it’s important to work on animals like pigs that are not at all closely related to us” but rather are cousins of whales and hippos.

And here is how we treat them. How can this in any way be morally acceptable?

Antibiotics And Animals

This could be significant: a federal court has ordered the FDA to follow-through on a 35-year old proposal to stop pumping farm animals full of antibiotics:

A federal court on Thursday ordered the FDA to follow through on a 35-year-old proposal that would have banned the use of certain antibiotics in animal feed because the agency was concerned that these drugs were overused in livestock and helped develop drug-resistant bacteria that can infect people.

The concern is that some antibiotics given to treat illnesses in people are widely used on animals to promote disease prevention and weight gain, as well as compensate for crowded conditions on ranches and farms. The prevalence of those antibiotics in livestock has been linked in several studies to the creation of drug-resistant “superbugs” that can spread to humans who work with or eat the animals.

Excessive antibiotic use to prevent disease in factory farm animals is not only a major threat to human health, it also allows industrial farming operations to crowd large numbers of animals together. Restricting antibiotic use could (this is just the first step toward a ban and agribusiness has a lot of lobbying power) push industrial farms to do more to avoid crowding and conditions that lead to diseased animals, because diseased animals hurt the bottom line.

Put aside the fact that a potential ban is being motivated mainly by concerns over human health, not animal welfare (a reminder of the self-interested way in which humans view the world and its animals). This would be a step in the right direction for animal welfare, as long as it led to some changes in industrial farming practices, or even made such practices less feasible.

Factory Farms Are Killing You (Reason #463)

"Mmm, there's nothing better than tetracycline in the morning."

One of the most short-sighted and objectionable practices of factory farms (sadly, there are so many to choose from) is the massive use of antibiotics on healthy animals in an effort to stave off illness that might prevent getting them to the slaughter. And when I say massive, I mean massive. US factory farms pour some 30 million pounds of antibiotics into their animals every year (in contrast, humans consume just a few million pounds).

That’s a lot of antibiotics, and it is a practice that helps boost the profit margins of both Big Agriculture and Big Pharma. There’s a problem, though. A big one. Using such outsize quantities of antibiotics helps breed antibiotic resistant bacteria. And those hardy little bacteria kill lots of people every year.

The smart policy response is obvious: stop feeding healthy animals so many antibiotics. Europe, which so many American politicians like to scorn, has banned use of antibiotics in this manner since 1998. And what has the FDA, which has understood this problem since 1976, done? Nothing. Well, actually more than nothing. It just made a lot of farm and pharma lobbyists happy, and reneged on a commitment to ban the practice of feeding healthy animals antibiotics:

The FDA has been aware of the resistance problem for many years. In 1977, it decided to act on scientific evidence and order farmers to stop using penicillin and tetracycline in farm animals. The law required the agency to act immediately. But under pressure from Big Ag and Big Pharma (80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are fed to healthy animals), the agency dragged its feet and did nothing, even though public health and environmental organizations, including the American Medical Association(PDF), urged it to act.

With scientific appeals falling on deaf ears for decades, the Natural Resource Defense Council, joined by other plaintiffs, filed a lawsuit last spring seeking to make the FDA follow its own rules. In a calculated attempt to undermine the legal basis for the NRDC suit, the FDA’s recent reversal simply nullified the original 1977 order, in effect wiping out 35 years of history and scientific research.

So there you have it: your (totally corrupted) government at work.

Your smart policy response? Stop eating factory-farmed meat. Even better, stop eating all meat.

The Meat Maze

It seems pretty clear that factory-farmed meat is an abomination: both for the animal and for your health. So pushing that off your plate shouldn’t be that hard.

The real conundrum comes with the choice between no meat or organic, free-range meat (with its image of happy, frolicking, four-footers gamboling across a green nirvana–before the axe cleaves swiftly and painlessly).

Professor James McWilliams has been trying to make the case for vegetarianism, and he is growing weary with the toil. He has long been arguing that organic, free-range meat is not the panacea that morally-conscious meat-lovers believe. He has troubled himself to point out the environmental and health costs of this sort of meat as well (they are an order of magnitude less than the costs of factory-farmed meat, but still…). And he finds that instead of putting aside their steak knives, most people are more likely to stab him with them.

Where I break from most conscientious consumers is in my decision to avoid meat from free-range animals and other alternative sources. This position hasn’t won any popularity contests for me. My occasional critiques of free-range animal farming have led to, among other things, threats by a butcher to separate me from a particularly valued appendage as well as frequent charges that I’m a hired gun for agribusiness. Both concepts are equally difficult to contemplate.

My typical line of attack on free-range systems has been to illuminate hidden or unpublicized environmental and health-related pitfalls—some minor, others not so—in an attempt to persuade ethically-minded consumers that although free-range might be better than factory-farmed, it is not the panacea so many make it out to be. But this approach, for a wide variety of reasons (many of them my own fault), has been a bust.

Turns out every study has a counter-study; every assumption a counter-assumption; every bold statement an angry butcher waiting on the other end to castrate, well, my argument. It took me a while to figure this out, but drawing on scientific literature to tarnish the supposed purity of free-range farming is, when you get right down to it, counterproductive. Paradoxically, by critiquing free-range animal products with the weapons of science, I’ve possibly inspired more consumers to eat more free-range meat than to give it up. It’s a dispiriting thought at best.

Prof. McWilliams is not happy with this result. So he’s giving up. Or at least trying a new line of argument. That line is that even though free-range animals live happier lives, we are still, in the end, taking their lives.

But this position—the idea that free-range is automatically a responsible choice simply because it’s more attentive to animal welfare—is morally blurred. Better does not mean acceptable. Consumers of free-range meat who oppose factory farming on welfare grounds (however partial) cannot escape an inconvenient question: Doesn’t killing an animal we don’t need constitute the very thing that factory farming perpetuates—which is to say, harm?

"You plan to do WHAT?!"

This is a fine argument for anyone who stopped eating meat after they saw Babe. They are morally opposed to killing animals when other foods, like rice and beans, are abundantly available (or at least that is my story). The problem is that I don’t think Professor McWilliams is going to win many new converts with it. No one who happily tucks into free-range meat these days is unaware that the animal on their plate has been, um, killed. And they are okay with that.

Sadly, Professor McWilliams will have to go back to slogging away in the trenches of environmental and health-based argument. If people really understood the true cost of a hamburger (even a delicious, happy, free-range hamburger), that would affect their choices.

Or, maybe Professor McWilliams should just skip that part and instead turn his energies to getting the market to price hamburger according to its full ($200) cost. That would lead to a real revolution in meat-eating.

For those who are morally uncomfortable with the idea of killing animals for meat, but haven’t yet been able to stop eating it, I highly recommend listening to the views of Jonathan Safran Foer.

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