Pigs Not to Blame For Global Outbreak of Swine Flu

by Cathy Holtslander

Pigs are taking the rap for the global outbreak of swine flu, but the pandemic was never their fault. In­fluenza is a social disease, and this pandemic is a social phenomenon. We’re in the thick of it now and pub­lic health agencies around the world are doing their best to minimize suffering and limit deaths.

But if we take the time to un­derstand the social ecology of influenza we will be bet­ter equipped to prevent future occurrences. Swine flu is merely the latest symptom of a chronic economic disease characterized by corporate control of food production, ex­ploitation of workers and animals, financial speculation and aggressive global trading.

In Mexico, as in Canada and the United States, hog production underwent massive structural change over the last 25 years owing to new policies designed to ramp up production, shift it to vertically integrated corporations, and sell our product to other countries cheaper than they produce it themselves. Communities once self-reliant in food production are now dependent on imports. Globaliza­tion remodelled agriculture into agri­business, and food became a mere com­modity on world markets.

In the past, most North American hogs were raised on family farms dis­persed throughout the countryside. Hogs were butchered on farms or at local abattoirs and regional packing plants. Supply and demand were pretty much in balance, and there was little export.

US-based Murphy Farms (bought out by Smithfield during the 1990s) was the first company to start raising hogs indoors using an assembly line approach. The new produc­tion model arrived in Quebec around 1994 and spread to the rest of Canada thereafter as federal and provincial policies and regulations were amended to encourage its expansion.

Where once a large hog farm boasted 100 sows, 5,000-sow operations producing tens of thousands of hogs per year soon became the norm. Smaller outfits went bankrupt. A few small diversified farms continue to raise smaller numbers of hogs for their local markets, but today most pork consumed in Canada comes from factory farms. In fact, Canada produces far more pork than we can eat, so we export roughly half of our production.

NAFTA triggered the same restructuring process in Mexico when farmers there were forced to compete with cheap imports from the US. Some farms grew bigger and more industrialized – many went out of business. As time went on, there as here, the minimum size of a commercial hog barn grew bigger and bigger. Mexico began to pursue an export pork agenda and companies such as Smithfield Food moved in to take advantage of the coun­try’s low wages – reducing costs while centralizing produc­tion in fewer, larger facilities.

Without the backing of Canadian, US, and Mexican policy-makers and the trade agreements they signed, the large factory farm environment in which this swine flu pandemic evolved would never have existed. This disease is one more cost of the export-oriented cheap food regime that has taken hold in North America and around the world.

If Canadians are serious about preventing the next, perhaps more deadly pandemic, we must adopt food poli­cies that respect the health of workers, the integrity of ani­mals, the skills and knowledge of small farmers and the meaning of food culture in our lives.

Livestock production must be moved out of factory farms. The crowd­ed, stressful conditions for both workers and animals in factory farms create myriad extra opportu­nities for viruses and other pathogens to evolve into new and potentially dangerous diseases. Quantities produced by our agricultural sector should reflect domestic consumption levels. We should allow other countries to produce the pork they need and offer their farmers the opportunity to earn a decent livelihood. A major portion of agriculture safety net payments in Canada are propping up the hog industry – investing those dollars towards an agriculture system that takes care of land, people and animals and promotes health is a better use of public funds. We urgently need to get be­yond factory farming.

***

Cathy Holtslander works for Beyond Factory Farming, a national advocacy group for socially responsible livestock production in Canada, www.beyondfactoryfarming.org

[From WS June/July 2009]

5 Issues/yr — $25 print; $15 digital