Thursday, May 7, 2009

Fear, the Flu, and Farming

Remember your European History class in high school? You know, the one where the coolest guy (in your extremely dorky opinion) was the one wearing the baggy black t-shirt with a rat screen-printed on the front of it? And above, in Gothic lettering, it read: "BLACK DEATH" and below: "EUROPEAN TOUR 1347-1351"?

Okay, maybe that was just me, but you have to admit that everybody loved the stories of the bubonic plague. The drama! The tragedy! The Monty Python references!

Anyway, the idea that diseases could spread wildly and kill off whole tens of percentages of the population is nothing new. Rat-infested Europe's population suffered from the bubonic plague fairly consistently for 400 years. And yes, this little germazoid (known in the scientific community as Yersitia pestis) is still around, still infecting 1,000 to 3,000 people globally every year, including a whole 10-15 in the United States. So, if you're feeling plague-y, antibiotics are effective now, and try not to play with flea-infested rodents so much.

Gosh, compared to this ruckus, Swine flu sounds like a day in the park! Well, yes and no. First the good news: the symptoms of H1N1 are mild and very similar to the normal run-of-the-mill flu. In fact, there are estimations that many more Americans have had H1N1 than have been reported, but didn't have extreme symptoms that would cause a doctor to test his or her blood.

Now, on the flipside, we have to take responsibility for why this is happening. It's no secret that smooshing 100 acres worth of animals into a facility the size of my grandfather's pole barn can be hazardous. Many claim, it's farming, it's a way of life. But, let's say you were a Medieval European, cramming a million rats into your apartment. You'd probably be dead and/or institutionalized, whichever came first.

No offense to pigs, or anything, but they eat and poop anything and everything. Really, really. And that kind of environment is excellent for viruses, and even better, virus mutation. So take a million virus mutating vessels, shove them all into your apartment, no go on, do it. See how the virus mutates! Now it can affect humans. You know, like day laborers in Mexico where we (and I use the term lightly. What I mean to say is Smithfield, but don't tell them, okay?) outsourced our farm (you know, the American way of life?) and let the pigs crap all over the village and let the people drink the water from that ground and work with pigs for 10 cents an hour. Voila! Swine flu.

Laurie Garrett describes it a lot better than I can.

Food and Water Watch (consumer advocacy org) does a pretty good job of connecting the dots, too.

The Humane Society has a lot to say about this, obviously.

What I'm trying to say, is that factory farming is really, really, really bad. It's bad for farmers, and it's bad for animals, and by gods, it's bad for humans. If we don't act over salmonella, and we don't act over e-coli, and we don't act over H1N1, what will be the thing to actually get our attention?