Friday, May 1, 2009
Johann Hari: Life-threatening disease is the price we pay for cheap meat
Modern factory farms have created a 'perfect storm' environment for powerful viruses
A swelling number of scientists believe swine flu has not happened by accident. No: they argue that this global pandemic – and all the deaths we are about to see – is the direct result of our demand for cheap meat. So is the way we produce our food really making us sick as a pig?
At first glance, this seems wrong. All through history, viruses have mutated, and sometimes they have taken nasty forms that scythe through the human population. This is an inescapable reality we just have to live with, like earthquakes and tsunamis. But the scientific evidence increasingly suggests that we have unwittingly invented an artificial way to accelerate the evolution of these deadly viruses – and pump them out across the world. They are called factory farms. They manufacture low-cost flesh, with a side-dish of viruses to go.
To understand how this might happen, you have to compare two farms. My grandparents had a pig farm in the Swiss mountains, with around 20 swine at any one time. What happened there if, in the bowels of one of their pigs, a virus mutated and took on a deadlier form?
At every stage, the virus would meet stiff resistance from the pigs' immune systems. They were living in fresh air, on the diet they evolved with, and without stress – so they had a robust ability to fight back.
If the virus did take hold, it would travel only as far as the sick hog could walk. So if the virus would then have around 20 other pigs to spread and mutate in – before it would hit the end of its own evolutionary path, and die off.
If it was a really lucky, plucky virus, it might make it to market – where it would come up against more healthy pigs living in small herds. It had little opportunity to fan out across a large population of pigs or evolve a strain that could be transmitted to humans