Friday, March 9, 2001

Comment by Worldwatch Institute researchers, Brian Halweil and Dani  Nierenberg on how globalization, economics and poor animal  husbandry are  responsible for our current animal-borne epidemics.


The spread of mad cow disease and foot-and-mouth across Europe show  that  no country-including the United States-is immune to the threat of  animal  borne illnesses. Yet, in the U.S., industry and government  officials are  singing the same tune as British officials 15 years ago, when the  British authorities consistently downplayed news of the emergence  of BSE  (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) or "mad cow" disease.

Globalized trade in goods and services, the movement of animals  across  borders, and the frequency of intercontinental airline travel means  that  no country is immune to mad cow or foot-and-mouth or any number of  existing-or emerging-diseases. The recently completed Panamerican  highway from Colombia to the United States virtually guarantees  that  foot-and-mouth-already a problem in South America-will make its way  up  to North America. A Brit with the foot-and-mouth virus hitchhiking  on  his shoes can board a plane in London and be on a Texas cattle farm  in a  matter of hours.

Since 1986, the year mad cow disease and its human version were  detected  in the UK, British meat has been shipped around the world. So have  British feed products, which can harbor this poorly-understood  illness  that is fatal to humans. Mad cows have already shown up in France,  Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Portugal, Ireland and Spain-a dozen  countries in total. The United Nations Food and Agriculture  Organization  has declared that all nations should consider themselves at risk,  though  many seem unprepared. A recent survey by U.S. Food and Drug  Administration found that a frightening one in four American  slaughterhouses and feed processing plants fail to comply with  steps to  prevent mad cow disease.

But simply worrying about the rapid spread of foot-and-mouth and  mad cow  doesn't really help us solve the problem, much less understand it.  And  to understand it you have to realize that mad cow and  foot-and-mouth are  related diseases. Not in any biological sense, but in terms of the  economic environment that allows them to thrive.

The modern animal farm not only allows, but paves the way for the  outbreak of disease. We cram thousands of genetically uniform  animals  into unhygienic warehouses, generating a virtual frat party for  microbes. We recycle animal manure and slaughterhouse waste as  feed. We  process meat at break-neck speed in the presence of blood, feces,  and  other contagion. Long-distance transport of food creates endless  opportunities for contamination.

The irony is that this model of food production-designed to put  economic  gain ahead of good animal health-doesn't make any economic sense in  the  long term. Mad cow alone has already cost Britain over $1 billion  and  sapped $5.6 million from EU coffers. The price tag for  foot-and-mouth  is likely to be equally devastating.

And these outbreaks represent just a glimpse of the full toll on  society. The mountains of manure that factory farming generates  foul our  air and water, disrupting ecosystems and sickening rural  communities.  Antibiotic overuse in factory farms comes back to harm us in the  form of  newly drug-resistant microbes, including Salmonella, E. coli, and  Camplyobacter. A recent study found that America's farm animals  consume  roughly 10 times as much antibiotics as the human population.

Still, industrial animal farming is spreading. It is the fastest  growing  form of animal production-responsible for nearly half of the  world's  meat, up from one-third in 1990. Though concentrated in North  America  and Europe, feedlots are popping up near urban centers in Brazil,  the  Philippines, China, India, and elsewhere in the developing world  where  demand for meat and animal products is soaring.

There is, of course, another way to produce meat, one which treats  farms  as living systems rather than assembly lines. It's no coincidence  that  mad cow has yet to be reported on organic farms throughout Europe  which  prohibit feeding of slaughterhouse waste, give animals access to  the  outdoors, and emphasize good animal health in general. In  countries  like Sweden, which have been able to prevent an outbreak with good  animal husbandry, farmers have gained public trust and recaptured  local  markets. Healthy animals will also be the best defense against  foot-and-mouth.

In Germany, the food scare has sparked an about-face on  agricultural  policy. After the first reports of mad cow, the prime minister  replaced  the agricultural minister with an environmentalist, and declared  that  agricultural policy and farm practices must resonate with  environmental  and public health goals. The European Union as a whole is posed for  similar systematic reforms that reach beyond quick-fix solutions  like  animal quarantines and meat irradiation.

It's time American politicians-currently in denial-took the same  path.  We need reforms at the national level, but in the end, it's a  global  issue. Trade is global; disease is global, and protecting public  health  must become global too.


Brian Halweil is a Research Associate and Dani Nierenberg, an
Adjunct Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington DC. They focus on  the social and ecological effects of how we produce food.


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