It appears that the swine flu pandemic has been averted for the moment due to some quick thinking and action. The tenor of news reports has changed from panic to the smug feeling that it is under control. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention probably deserve kudos for helping contain the problem. But, as with previous episodes of disease, it may well recur: The severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and avian flu have appeared more than once, as have Ebola and Legionnaires’ disease.
However, underlying issues remain unaddressed. This is not unusual: SARS is believed to have arisen from a virus that jumped from another species to humans because of the close proximity in which domestic animals and humans live in some parts of China. Yet China has taken practically no steps to reduce the possibility of such mutations in the future. And it’s not just epidemics or pandemics; many health problems originate in bad food practices, particularly in the US.
In the case of swine flu, it is alleged that the initial outbreak took place in a part of Mexico where Smithfield Foods Inc., the largest pork producer in the US, has a large farm, producing almost a million hogs a year. There are reports of serious air and water pollution in the area from pig faecal matter and other waste, not to mention the stench and respiratory ailments afflicting residents. There are stinking lagoons containing the run-off from the farms: a perfect breeding ground for disease. The groundwater is seriously contaminated, too. Parts of the American South have experienced similar pollution problems from hog farming.
We may have just about reached the limits of US-style factory farming. The US farm Bill that was passed last year, like all its versions in years past, continues to support big farmers through massive subsidies. Subsidies total $20 billion for five major crops: wheat, rice, cotton, soya and corn. This largesse ends up fattening Americans and starving others, because US farmers overproduce and “dump” their products elsewhere at prices below their production costs.
Michael Pollan of the University of California, Berkeley, points out that even though current American techniques are highly efficient— one farmer feeds as many as 10,000 people—the toll on the earth, aquifers and human health is extraordinary.
The impact on water is particularly grim: Unbelievably, thirsty crops such as rice are cultivated in semi- desert California through the profligate use of water piped in from the mountains over hundreds of miles. It also takes huge amounts of water to produce various food items: For 1kg of beef, wheat and potatoes, the water input is 13,000 litres, 1,300 litres and 100 litres, respectively.
One consequence of fattening chickens, cattle and pigs in highly confined spaces is that they are far more prone to disease than free-range animals. Thus, they have to be pumped full of antibiotics. All that, of course, ends up in the bodies of humans who consume their flesh—and the result is antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which render hospital visits potentially deadly.
Similarly, overproduction of corn, via “high-fructose corn syrup”, is engendering a diabetes epidemic in the US, especially among poor blacks and Hispanics who find that it is far cheaper to buy highly processed and sugary foods than fresh fruits and vegetables.
American food policies and practices need to change. Otherwise, there will be more and more epidemics related to factory farms. Unfortunately, these US practices are spreading to other parts of the world.
Bad food policy and seductive fast food thus lead to two kinds of health dangers—one from epidemics, the other from systemic diseases. Unless consumption patterns change, we are only applying band-aids whenever there is an epidemic.
Rajeev Srinivasan is a management consultant specializing in energy and strategy issues. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org