Goat horns don't belong on a pig

Laying the blame for the swine flu pandemic where it belongs

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. Because 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 company grew, and quickly gained more and more market share. Soon other companies were emulating the Murphy approach, and factory farming of hogs took off. 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 environment in which this swine flu pandemic evolved would never have existed. The unnecessary deaths caused by this disease are 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. We need to create an environment where a pandemic cannot take hold.

Livestock production must be moved out of factory farms. The crowded, stressful conditions for both workers and animals in factory farms create myriad 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. Instead of competing in the cost-cutting race to the bottom of export markets, 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.

For more information on swine flu and the outbreak visit our Swine Flu Pandemic 2009 webpage.