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NAFTA and flu… porked by agrobiz

26 April 2009

UPDATE (28 April): Jo Tuckman and Robert Booth, The Guardian (U.K.) report that La Gloria, Veracruz, the possible epicenter of the outbreak may be … just co-incidentally — the site of a large Smithfield pig production CAFO.

David Kirby, who specializes in writing on public health, but has also been a Mexico and Central American correspondent for several U.S. magazines wrote on the suspected connection between foreign-owned and operated hog feedlots and the flu outbreak.  His article on Huffington Post is probably the most readable article on something that’s not really all that big a biological mystery:

In the last several years, U.S. hog conglomerates have opened giant swine CAFOs [‘confined animal feeding operations’] south of the border, including dozens around Mexico City in the neighboring states of Mexico and Puebla. Smithfield Foods also reportedly operates a huge swine facility in the State of Veracruz, where the current outbreak may have originated. Many of these CAFOs raise tens of thousands of pigs at a time. Cheaper labor costs and a desire to enter the Latin American market are drawing more industrialized agriculture to Mexico all the time, wiping out smaller, traditional farms, which now account for only a small portion of swine production in Mexico.

“Classic” swine flu virus (not the novel, mutated form in the news) is considered endemic in southern Mexico, while the region around the capital is classified as an “eradication area” – meaning the disease is present, and efforts are underway to control it…

Pigs are nature’s notorious “mixing bowls” for inter-species infections, and many swine flu viruses have long contained human influenza genetic components. Then, in the late 1990’s – when industrialized swine production really took off in North America – scientists were alarmed to find that avian influenza genetic material was also mixed into the continent’s viral soup.

In other words, pigs (which are a lot more like that other common omnivorous mammal, homo sapiens, than we like to think) are living in large concentrations very near humans, and subject to diseases (like flu) that can easily mutate to to affect each other.

Until the 1990s, nearly all Mexican pig farms had less than 20 animals.  CAFO farms now account for 53 percent of Mexican pork, and they have an economic and political advantage over the small farmer.   Those small pig farms (some being just a farmer with a sow and a few piglets rooting around the back yard) had varied genetic qualities, and were prone to show up in the local market with other illnesses, like trichinosis.  And the meat was not of any standard quality.

I went to the trouble of subscribing to an on-line agricultural website this afternoon, just to read   Swine production: a global perspective (07/02/07) written by John R. Moore of Alltech Biotechnology, an animal feed producer.  CAFO hog production is growing everywhere, and does have some advantages:

The structure of the global swine industry has changed at an unprecedented rate over the last decade. Small mixed-production farming operations that produced several different crops and utilized swine to consume by-products or excess grain have given way to large farrow-to-finish units that are dedicated to swine production. In many countries swine production has increasingly become dominated by corporate operations with separate ownership, operating units and geographical locations for each phase of production.

These corporate units are generally completely or partially vertically integrated with dedicated feed mills, their own genetic selection, multiplier units, sow breeding units, nursery and finisher units. These operations practice 3-site production with separate personel that specialize in a particular stage of production. In many cases the production units, packing plants, meat processing, food service units and retail sales outlets are integrated into the same corporate structure.

These structural changes have had a major impact on the size of individual operations in the swine producing countries of the world.

Vertical and horizontal integration operations in Mexico are among the most advanced in the world. The coordination of production from breeding through slaughter ensures a standardized quality of animals. Further vertical integration targets packing plants, which brings the whole processing operation under company or association control and in doing so captures all of the value-added profits. As the Mexican pork industry continues to modernize utilizing advanced technology to increase efficiency of production, they will position their industry as a major exporter in the world pork industry.

Those integrated operations required massive cash outlays, which Mexican farmers did not have (as it was, hog production crashed in the 1980s after feed prices rose following an end of subsidies to sorgham farmers).  It was only post-NAFTA that foreign companies — agro-corporations — looked at Mexico as a logical place to locate CAFO hog facilities.

While this means more pork for the consumer (at the cost of the Mexican family farmer), and a higher standard of meat in the market at a lower cost, the corporate farms located in Mexico for another reason.  Iowa and Indiana and other traditional hog production states were writing strict environmental regulations.  If nothing else, suburbanites didn’t want to smell pig shit.      Clouthier, et. al (Local Environmental Protection and Trade: The Cases of Hog Production in Canada and Mexico),  wrote in March 2003 (Commission for Environmental Cooperation):

Since 1989, gains in hog production have been realized by increasing hog inventory rather than by the widespread introduction of new farming techniques. If this trend continues, more pressure on water and land resources will result (Espejo, 1998). The diffusion of management techniques to reduce the environmental impacts is slow and not sufficiently known.

The Mexican legal response to the environmental impact of hog production is relatively weak. On the one hand, agricultural laws do not restrict the size of production and, on the other hand, environmental laws are both recent and unconstraining.

Initially centralized at the national level, environmental laws are increasingly becoming a state or municipal competence. However, none of the states have amended their environmental laws to reflect the 1996 LGEEPA amendments.

Conditions to the operation of agricultural activities are established under state legislation and vary from state to state. An important aspect of state power over the environment is their ability to exempt the application of national environmental laws within the state through the state’s adoption of its own environmental technical standards. Another state power is the ability to require environmental impact assessments for the operation of waste treatment facilities, sanitary landfills, and wastewater or non-hazardous solid waste disposal. However, as in other matters, state powers related to environmental impact assessment are often delegated to municipalities through the signature of coordination agreements.

As for substantive law, Mexican regulations related to hog production are weak in several respects. First, no minimum distance separation (MDS) are required in Mexico between livestock operations and property lines, other structures or other livestock operations although exceptions are to be found in some municipal by-laws on livestock activities in urban areas.

Second, despite the fact that municipalities now require building permits and land use permits for new facilities (with no size specification), there often are no environmental requirements associated with livestock building permits.

Third, although restrictions on discharges into water bodies exist, waste management is generally unregulated.

Fourth, although intensive livestock operations are normally subject to environmental assessment impacts, unwritten practices of some states exempt agricultural and livestock operations from these procedures due to the economic significance of the agriculture sector.

Fifth, there is currently no requirement for a manure management plan in Mexico and no recommendations on the use of manure as fertilizer.

Finally, Mexico has no moratorium on new facilities or expansions, although the construction or expansion of new facilities is prohibited in a few zones, namely in urban areas.

In conclusion, Mexico’s legal response to environmental concerns resulting from hog production appears minimal and can generally be summarized as the prohibition of waste discharges into water bodies. While a general low priority given to environmental policy partially explains this situation, the political and economical context plays a major role as well.

Mexico (especially central Mexico) already has serious water quality and delivery problems.  Unregulated CAFOs don’t help the situation any, and — remember that pigs and humans are about the same size, and use as much water.  And, being — like humans — omnivores, their shit is about the same as ours.  But the pig aren’t using the toilet.

Mexico City has been rationing water as the delivery system is repaired, but has had to cancel scheduled cutoffs for the duration of the health emergency.  Whether the water shortage was a factor in this outbreak remains to be seen, but the role of large-scale hog farms, purposely located in an environmentally fragile area to avoid environmental restrictions,  has long-term consequences.

If the flu had come from one of the small 20-or-less pig farms, any outbreak would have been very limited.  No information has surfaced on the original patients who contracted the swine flu — whether they were farm workers, or connected with swine production (everyone forgets that “Mexico City” includes rural communities, as well as the urban portions of the Federal District).  Big hog farms, like big cities, are the best place for a disease to spread.  Had one hog gotten sick among 20 hogs, he would have been singled out.  One hog among 20,000 is going to be overlooked, just as one 39-year old woman’s unexplained death from respiratory illenss in San Luis Potosi on 12 April was nearly overlooked.

And now… the pig’s out of the bag… or something like that.

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