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May 6, 2009

Potential cause of swine flu – our food chain.

Pigs. Lovely things. But when you have too many of them at a single place, it could be slightly problematic. Anyone who has been to a pig farm or a passed by a slaughter house would know this. But what does this have to do with Swine Flu? Quite a lot, if one  goes by newspapers and reports from labs such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC).



The guardian carried a news article [1,2] that highlighted how industrialized farming consistently looks at optimizing food produce with any and whatever means possible. The means could include large scale operations that generate coresspondingly large amounts of waste, and complicate management of stock. Excerpts related to the scale of operations at one of the world’s largest pig “manufacturing” company:

It operates on a grand scale. The volume of its pig waste is extravagant. But just as RBS did not alone cause the financial crisis but merely conformed to the latest banking type, so it is the very nature of today’s globalised meat industry that is at the heart of this emerging swine flu pandemic. The factory unit near La Gloria fattens nearly a million pigs a year.

Intensive factories of densely packed hogs, like those of the rest of the large-scale industry, produce vast lagoons of foul-smelling discharges. In many of the areas where it has sited its factory farms or slaughtering and processing complexes, activists and locals have campaigned against it, accusing it of environmental pollution, labour rights abuses and in some places operating without proper permits.

If you had a farm with about 50-60 livestock, one could estimate how they are behaving, and this can give an important clue to their well-being. In practice animals behave oddly when they are sick, and growers of livestock learn how to understand such behavior. To take blood samples and measure the disease in each animal is at best difficult, and at worst impossible. When you talk about lakhs of animals at a single location, being grown for the sole purpose of being killed and consumed, things can get a little haywire. It is practically not possible to understand their behavior. As for regular blood tests and similar – well that will be too expensive, so tests will be conducted on samples. Then there is also the use of anti-biotics and steroids. Excerpt form the Guardian:

Health experts have warned for years about the danger of intensive livestock farming creating new and rampant human disease. If these new viruses are the toxic debt of the food system, the genetically improved pig is its highly engineered and artificial derivative. Pumped up like a bodybuilder, dependent on antibiotics and vaccines to keep it going, it has disproportionately large back legs to meet a market that likes hams more than shoulder of pork; it has tiny ears and no tail to limit the scars from the aggressive behaviour distressed conditions produce; and it is bred without hair for ease of slaughter. When herds of 5,000 of these genetically identical modern animals catch flu, it rips through them.

At CDC the head of virology had completed the genetic fingerprinting of the swine flu and was able to say that it has arisen from a strain first identified on industrial pig units in North Carolina in the late 1990s. ….. “North Carolina has the densest pig population in North America and boasts more than twice as many corporate swine mega-factories as any other state. With massive concentrations of farm animals within which to mutate, these new swine flu viruses in North America seem to be on an evolutionary fast track, jumping and reassorting between species at an unprecedented rate.

Novel human disease is the toxic debt of today’s industrial livestock farming. The influenza virus has eight genetic segments. If two different types of flu infect the same cell at the same time, the genes from both viruses mix, swapping segments to form totally new hybrids.


The 1918 flu pandemic was an H1N1 strain and was a kind of bird flu new to humans so they had no immunity to it. It killed at least 50 million people as it raged around the world in less than a year. The 1918 H1N1 strain passed from humans to pigs, and became the dominant form of flu among pigs, albeit one that evolved into a fairly mild strain.

But then in 1998 there was an explosive new outbreak of swine flu in a factory farm in North Carolina that made thousands of pigs ill. The virus had evolved into a triple hybrid that had never been seen before, containing gene segments from bird, human and swine flu. It had found the ideal breeding ground. Pigs, whose immune systems were suppressed by the stress of crowding and fast feeding, and kept confined indoors, were perfect disease incubators for flu whose preferred method of transmission is virus-infected aerosol droplets, expelled by the million in the hog’s famous barking cough. Thanks to the modern practice of transporting live animals, the new virus spread rapidly through pig herds around the country.

Despite this information, it is the common consumers who will continue to use such products:

But instead of addressing these wider issues, the response to the flu pandemic in terms of food production is “carry on as normal”. Urged to spend our way out of ecological recession, we are exhorted to keep eating pork products. Keen to protect the economic interests of its meat industry, the US government took to calling this swine flu “H1N1 flu” a couple of days ago, in order not to put people off their chops. The World Health Organisation, which depends on the US for a large part of its budget and has been bullied by it before, has now followed suit, rebranding the flu influenza A (H1N1). But simply saying “as you were” is no more an adequate response to the cause of this current crisis than it is to the banking collapse. If we carry on as before, the pigs may yet have their revenge. And if not the pigs, the chickens.

Food production has become more about economics than about good food. No matter what the management tells us, if a company has to generate tons of toxic waste and pollute the surroundings, such food is of dubious distinction. Livestock manufaturers, some of the large ones have had to pay large fines for polluting surrounding areas. I for one believe that non-Vegeterian food has become high-risk . It is also very horrible treatement of animals. This condition is not only of pigs, it is true about beef  (Mad cow disease: 1, 2, 3, 4), chicken (Bird flu: 1, 2, 3) and all forms of industrialized non-veg food [1, 2, 3]. Mass farming of animals combines several ills like anti-biotic overuse, bad treatment of animals, poor feed to livestock, and profit-maximizing mentality. These techniques become a breeding ground for genetic mutation of multi-drug resistant diseaes like MRSA [1, 2]. There is a risk of something similar happening in agriculture through the use of pesticides and chemicals in farms. But thankfully for the vegeterians, plants are much more sensitive than animals. Plants do not survive the use of more than milder doses of chemicals. Hence, it is not easy to alter plants and disease mutations in plants is yet unknown. However, Genetic engineering in agriculture is a big concern [1, 2, 3]. Greed and errors in livestock farming has already given us Avian and Swine flu. Will we spoil our agriculture as well?


April 14, 2009

Go slow, youngistan – Make sure you chew your cud.

Filed under: jaago rey, personal, social change, the one straw revolution — neosurya @ 20:51

I have been watching some of the media messages coming out these days about “impatient youth”, youth on the run… and all that kind of racy stuff. The Airtel ad is a case in point.

Typically, they show juntaa in jeans, with multi-colored hair and the like. You get the picture. I do not have an issue with the hair, I myself wear jeans and stuff, and think it is absolutely cool to make a fashion statement. I have begun to prefer a lungi tho – it is much cooler, especially with the summer. What is scary is that we are being convinced that being fast and being impatient for results will bring about development. One ought to realize that this is life, a complex thing with several variables. You chew through it fast enough, you will get indigestion. This explains the profile image I have:

Keep your cool, dont forget to ruminate
Keep your cool, do not forget to ruminate

“The ruminating bovine”. For those un-initiated to rumination, a cow has to eat grass before a predator can get to it. It cannot wait to chew its food while grazing. So, it grabs everything it can by those lovely large lips, and stores it in one of the stomachs (It has four of those). But, it does not try to digest it all at once without chewing. It gets it back into its mouth and chews it at leisure.

Well – दुनिया के सारे मुद्दे भी घास के तरह है (duniyaa ke mudde bhi ghaas ki tarah hai) – issues in the world are like grass. You do not have the time to digest it all. Keep your eyes open, learn about them. And do not try to digest them all at once. Ruminate on these before you go for your next “grazing session”…

A related issue is the overwhelming feel that “young blood” is needed everywhere. Of course, youth are needed. But we, the youngistan, should not forget that there are others in Hindustan. If experience is ignored completely, it can lead to very bad results.

March 20, 2009

I met “The One straw revolution”….

Filed under: agriculture, book, Masanobu Fukuoka, the one straw revolution — neosurya @ 03:01

Sometimes, you read a book and feel that you have met in the author, a part of yourself. In my case, “the one straw revolution” by Masanobu Fukuoka is one such book. Some quotes:

==== page 74.

Modern research divides nature into tiny pieces and conducts research that conforms neither with natural law nor with practical experiments.

Even if you can explain how metabolism affects the productivity of the top leaf when the average temperature is eighty-four degrees (Fahrenheit), there are places where the temperature is not eighty-four degrees. Moreover, if the temperature is eighty-four degrees in Ehime this year, next year it may only be seventy-five degrees. To say that simply stepping up metabolism will increase starch formation and produce a large harvest is a mistake. The geography and topography of the land, the condition of the soil, its structure, texture, and drainage, exposure to sunlight, insect relationships, the variety of seed used, the method of cultivation-truly an infinite variety of factors-must all be considered. A scientific testing method that takes all relevant factors into account is an impossibility.
==== page 87.
If one farm household or one cooperative takes up a new process such as the waxing of Mandarin oranges, because of the extra care and attention the profit is higher. The other agricultural co-ops take notice and soon they, too, adopt the new process. Fruit which is not wax-treated no longer brings so high a price. In two or three years, waxing is taken up all over the country. The competition then brings the prices down and all that is left to the farmer is the burden of hard work and the added costs of supplies and equipment. Now he must apply the wax.

In this chapter, Fukuoka indicates how physical deformities are not indicative of the nutritional value, but are still preferred.

==== Page 97 first paragraph.
It is the same with fertilizer and chemicals. Instead of developing fertilizer with the farmer in mind, the emphasis is on developing something new, anything at all, in order to make money.
==== Page 97
The fundamental question here is whether or not it is necessary for human beings to eat eggplants and cucumber during the winter.
====  Page 115
I do not particularly like the word “work.” Human beings are the only animals who have to work, and I think this is the most ridiculous thing in the world. Other animals make their livings by living, but people work like crazy, thinking that they have to in order to stay alive.
==== Page 158
Why do you have to develop? If economic growth raises from 5% to 10%, is happiness going to double? What’s wrong with a growth rate og 0%? Isnt’ this a rather stable kind of economics? Could there be anything better than living simply and taking it easy?

This book does not subscribe to escapism, or suggest that one should be lazy. Fukuoka makes it very clear that the life of natural farming is very difficult, that every plant has to be studied, and significant manual labor is involved.

As for me, the current definitions of development, and the behavior of science and business are quite irresponsible, and out of balance. The book says the same in the area of agriculture.

For example, the quote from page 87 (above) describes a “Waxing” phenomena that we can see happening at several other industries. The parallel is easier to understand in the IT business where margins have become razor thin as more companies outsourced and competition increased. IT companies routinely slave their workers. The loss of quality of life was not apparent initially, but is now being seen all around.

I do not think that one should stop scientific research; I believe however that large scale experiments with untested scientific research is akin to shooting yourself in the foot.

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