Photo via Current
If you've managed to avoid the incessant coverage thus far, here's what you need to know about swine flu. If you haven't, then you know that 150 people are dead from the disease in Mexico, Europe has encouraged travelers to cancel travel plans to the North America, and the disease has hit as many as 4 different continents. The disease itself frightening, yes—though perhaps no reason for all-out panic. But the way there's something else worth noting about swine flu—it developed and spread thanks to some of the most environmentally damaging human practices that our modern world relies upon. Swine Flu: What's Bad for the Environment is Bad for Human Health
And vice versa. It's a connection that is, stunningly, not drawn nearly enough. A recent report from the Food and Agriculture Organization spells out our current situation:
Because of human and livestock population growth, changes in livestock production, the emergence of worldwide agro-food networks, wild animal trade, and significant changes in personal mobility, human populations increasingly share a global commons of disease risk, among themselves and with other animal species.
So let's break that down, with an eye on environmental impact.
Swine Flu and Factory Farms
The "changes in livestock production" refer to an increased worldwide reliance on factory farms for our supply of meat. Industrial farms like these are a prime suspect for where the current strain of swine flu developed--there are hundreds of such pig farms in Mexico, where cramped quarters, often unsanitary conditions, and plenty of human-hog contact make for an ideal place for the spread of disease.
But disease spread is just one adverse environmental effect of these industrial farms. They also generate millions of tons of waste and pollution, can contaminate water supplies, can constitute animal cruelty, and increase much-needed antibiotic resistance in humans since the animals are injected with antibodies.
And more and more people—including you and I—are getting their meat from such operations.
Swine Flu and the Demise of Local Farming
Those "worldwide agro-food networks" are another problem. Food is now shipped all over the world—and though you can't get swine flu from eating bad pork, the practice fuels the demand for industrial farming operations where such diseases spring from. And the effects of worldwide distribution have an overwhelmingly negative environmental effect: food packaging and shipping consume resources and spew greenhouse gas emissions at an alarming rate.
Swine Flu and Air Travel
Yes, those "changes in personal mobility" refer to the fact that people are flying across the globe, limited only by the cost of a plane ticket. There's no need to recount the negative impact the airline industry has—its intensive carbon emissions are well known by now. But the luxury of global connectedness has come at another price, as illustrated by the swine flu: disease can spread without borders and far more rapidly. Again: what's bad for the environment is bad for human health in general.
This line of reasoning should perhaps seem obvious—but there are many who would advocate a continued path of unadulterated consumption and turn a blind eye towards the downside to these practices.
But all this just serves to highlight that many of the ways that our lives have appeared to improve (cheaper food, access to exotic and out-of-season produce, and the ability to travel to the ends of the earth) come at unforeseen costs--both to our environment and our personal health. By working to improve these situations--eating local and organic food and keeping travel plans domestic and train-friendly--we'll helping to kill two proverbial avian flu-bearing birds with one stone.
More on Disease and Environment
World Health Organization: Preventing Disease Through Healthy Environments
Pure Prevention: Breast Cancer and the Environment