The way we're doing things clearly doesn't work.
The Year of the Pig is not going so well in China. A devastating outbreak of African swine flu, first detected last August but unable to be contained, has resulted in more than one million pigs being slaughtered so far. Some estimate that up to 200 million will need to be culled in order to stem the spread of the disease.
The African swine flu virus is highly contagious, lingering for weeks on clothing and vehicles, which allows it to spread rapidly and afar. With Southeast Asia's borders being very porous, this is an extremely serious concern for officials trying to contain the outbreak. From the Guardian:
"It has spread like wildfire across Asia, causing growing devastation to the pig farmers of Vietnam and Cambodia and putting Thailand, Asia’s second-biggest pork producer, on 'red alert'. Cases have increased in Mongolia, North Korea and Hong Kong in recent weeks, while South Korea is blood testing pigs at the border."
There is no vaccine or treatment for it, and the pigs die from internal haemorrhaging. The disease has been dubbed the pig 'ebola' virus, and the only way to stop it is to slaughter all infected animals.
Dr. Dirk Pfeiffer, a veterinary epidemiologist at the City University of Hong Kong, says it's the biggest animal disease outbreak the planet has seen so far. "It makes the foot and mouth disease and BSE [Bovine spongiform encephalopathy] outbreaks pale in comparison to the damage that is being done. And we have no way to stop it from spreading."
Already, pork prices have spiked globally, with U.S. and European producers exporting more of their products than usual to China and Vietnam, the two hardest-hit countries, to compensate for the shortage. Pork is the most commonly consumed meat in Vietnam, making up 75 percent of its meat, and "the agriculture sector in Vietnam employs almost 50 percent of the workforce, with pork farming a significant part of that."
The one silver lining is that African swine flu does not infect humans, but it's only a matter of time until another animal disease outbreak does. Then we're in really serious trouble because antibiotic resistance is on the rise – precisely because of all the antibiotics we've been feeding to industrially-farmed animals in order to stave off illnesses triggered by their cramped, inhumane conditions and to fatten them rapidly. It's a cruel irony that is sure to spell disaster.
As the U.S. National Institutes of Health explained following the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, the way in which animals are farmed is at the root of these outbreaks:
"When respiratory viruses get into these confinement facilities, they have continual opportunity to replicate, mutate, reassort, and recombine into novel strains. The best surrogates we can find in the human population are prisons, military bases, ships, or schools.
But respiratory viruses can run quickly through these [human] populations and then burn out, whereas in CAFOs [concentrated animal feeding operations] — which often have continual introductions of [unexposed] animals — there’s a much greater potential for the viruses to spread and become endemic."
The Chinese swine flu outbreak is far from over and analysts say it could have lasting repercussions for years; but most importantly, it needs to serve as a lesson in how the way we produce our food can come back to haunt us and how important it is to move away from industrialized animal production, even if that means less and far more expensive meat in our diets.