Swine Flu Raises More Questions About Industrial Livestock Production

Patient Zero: Edgar Hernandez, a 5-year-old boy living in La Gloria, Mexico.

Edgar was the first reported human case of swine flu in an epidemic that has rippled across four continents, and he is important as international health officials look for the source of the outbreak.

Officials are investigating whether pigs near Edgar's home were the origin of the strain of swine influenza H1N1 that has killed at least 10 people and sickened hundreds more in the past few weeks, Mexico Health Minister Jose Angel Cordova told reporters. Edgar lives near a concentrated animal feedlot operation (CAFO), whose owner produces nearly 1 million pigs a year.

Scientists say this sort of virus first surfaced a decade ago when human and bird viruses combined with swine flu in a U.S. feedlot. While the CAFO near La Gloria has not yet been confirmed to be tied to the outbreak, it raises more questions about the practice of industrial-scale livestock production, already known to be bad news for the environment. 

The people in La Gloria blame that CAFO's operator, Granjas Carroll, for the flu, saying the company didn't adequately treat its "fecal and organic waste."

The major shareholder in Granjas Carroll, U.S.-based Smithfield, vigorously denies its feedlots have been the source of the flu, and officials have yet to say if it is connected. But over 400 of La Gloria's 3,000 residents have been sickened in recent weeks.

Fly swarms had infested the town until health works sprayed chemicals to kill them, and those flies came from the "oxidation ponds that store the wastes" of Granjas Carroll, says La Gloria's municipal agent, Bertha Crisóstomo.

CAFOs are known biological incubators, creating conditions ideal for the growth of mutant influenza strains. As University of California professor Mike Davis writes,

"Last year, a commission convened by the Pew Research Center issued a report on 'industrial farm animal production' that underscored the acute danger that 'the continual cycling of viruses ... in large herds or flocks [will] increase opportunities for the generation of novel virus through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human-to-human transmission.'

"The commission also warned that promiscuous antibiotic use in hog factories (cheaper than humane environments) was sponsoring the rise of resistant staph infections, while sewage spills were producing outbreaks of E coli and pfiesteria (the protozoan that has killed 1billion fish in Carolina estuaries and made ill dozens of fishermen)."

Industrial-scale animal production is already known to be bad news for the climate. Giant feed lots suck up energy and emit large amounts of greenhouse gases, contributing to global warming in several ways.

The pigs raised—perhaps produced is the better word—on the mechanized, confined livestock factories are fed a calorie and protein-dense diet consisting largely of grain grown on monoculture plantations. That grain is grown using massive amounts of petro-chemical inputs, thereby contributing to a serious emissions footprint.

Additionally, producing farm animals on an industrial scale produces fecal matter on an industrial scale.

The liquid-waste management protocol that the majority of CAFOs employ results in a lot of methane and nitrous oxide emissions from decomposing manure. Pig manure is thought to contribute 4 percent of the total anthropogenic methane emissions. This is a greenhouse gas with 20 times the global warming power of carbon dioxide, and it lingers in the atmosphere for 9-15 years.

In an integrated organic farm that grows cereal crops and pastures its livestock, such wastes could be applied as fertilizer. However, that natural solution to waste disposal is almost impossible in mechanized operations the scale of those owned by Granjas Carroll and Smithfield.

The landmark FAO report, "Livestock's Long Shadow," also emphasizes that CAFOs use a lot of power: for lighting, temperature control, and the air circulation, without which the animals would die from the concentrated toxins that percolate through the air. Mapping has shown elevated atmospheric nitrogen concentrations in the vicinity of high-density animal plantations, as well.

A horrifically penetrating Rolling Stone article described the conditions inside one CAFO:

"Smithfield's pigs live by the hundreds or thousands in warehouse-like barns, in rows of wall-to-wall pens. Sows are artificially inseminated and fed and delivered of their piglets in cages so small they cannot turn around.

"Forty fully grown 250-pound male hogs often occupy a pen the size of a tiny apartment. They trample each other to death. There is no sunlight, straw, fresh air or earth. The floors are slatted to allow excrement to fall into a catchment pit under the pens, but many things besides excrement can wind up in the pits: afterbirths, piglets accidentally crushed by their mothers, old batteries, broken bottles of insecticide, antibiotic syringes, stillborn pigs — anything small enough to fit through the foot-wide pipes that drain the pits.

"The pipes remain closed until enough sewage accumulates in the pits to create good expulsion pressure; then the pipes are opened and everything bursts out into a large holding pond."

That's from a feedlot in the United States, where CAFOs are ostensibly regulated. Imagine Mexico.

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