Driving Across America
The interstate follows the path of least resistance, coursing through the plains of soy and corn, with easy exits to familiar rest stops. We're driving across America. Most of what we see, as we surf the interstate highway system, is industrial cropland. It stretches from horizon to horizon, with much of it destined to fast-feed us only after first fattening livestock, its protein reduced eight-fold. The animal intermediaries are drugged, and not for their pain but for our pleasure, with antibiotics and hormones. The faster to feed them, the faster to fatten us. If there were an easier or cheaper way no doubt we'd have taken it.
Today, as we cross the central plains, there are endless stretches of road, some so ruler-straight we see them follow the curve of the globe itself. On cruise control, I've plenty of time to reflect on the dark legerdemain of industrial ranching. And I can hardly keep these thoughts from the top of my mind, for my neighbor's child has begun to bleed. Her problem is labeled, gently, precocious puberty, something becoming all too common and attributed to the improved diet of modern civilization. But I've seen what kids eat. It's not just the nutrition, it's the chemicals doing their jobs. She's curled up with cramps on the back seat now.
At 6 years old, she still lacks the tools to blame us, that little bit of knowledge that we are the makers of her trouble. The ones who only watched, or rather didn't watch. We tell our children that they just don't want to know how their chicken nuggets are made, just as our parents warned us away from asking about our hamburgers. And most of them quietly accept it, following our lead - out of sight, out of mind. Perhaps that's a good thing. After all, those who abuse animals must learn their cruelty someplace. But then again, perhaps cruelty begins with indifference.
No cameras appear as we rise above a milky-brown river. From on high, I see a city splintering into the faded horizon. I wonder what becomes of an entire nation raised not to look. Does it grow numb, become insulated from the trevails of unseen children, come at last to condone distant preemptive wars, coolly calculating the easiest path to security? We look away, but I wonder if this deliberate indifference about how food makes it to our tables is in fact the first stumble on that nerveless path.
The girl's mother, seated beside me, is trying to tell her daughter the meaning of her blood and pain. When we were no longer children, our parents passed this torch. We hold that same light out now but it seems more a grey and smoking river, having run through us, reduced to the last smoldering coal. For the child behind me, as for so many others, adulthood is no longer a rite of passage, it is a disease of too easy. And the children aren't the ones we need to speak to.
I tilt my head to peer into the mirror, and looking into my own eyes I see the difficult way that lies before me. In 2006, I attended the UN sponsored International Disaster Reduction Conference, where I presented a model for economic reform designed to alter our course towards sustainability and protect us from black swan crises - the rare and shattering catastrophes. I'm one of those people who looks into the shadows, and what I've seen there is ourselves. Under the glaring light of the late afternoon sun, I outline our self-portrait for my traveling companion.
Down On the Farm
If we are what we eat, then a significant part of us is the product of concentrated animal feeding operations, CAFOs, better known as factory farms. There the cows are in the corn, a rich food that fattens them fast but that they wouldn't normally eat in such quantities because it makes them miserably sick, opening lesions in their stomachs that would kill them without antibiotics. For dairy cows the story is better and worse. Some still graze a little, but to accommodate the 6-pack, industrial milking machines of intensive livestock farming any extra utters are sliced off, without anesthetic. And all the cattle are branded and slaughtered without anesthetic.
Most of the poultry and pigs spend their lives crowded so close they have difficulty turning around, when they can at all. This imprisonment is a living hell for the hogs because of their remarkable intelligence. They stare up at us with helpless loathing and fear, and often must be beaten to gain any cooperation. The chickens headed for our tables blanket the cement floors, a sea of sooty white and yellow, feeding on their own feces - not by accident, but by design, to capture the last calorie. A thick layer is imported to supplement what they produce themselves. The laying hens are confined to cages the size of small suitcases, 4 or 5 or 6 to a box, so that they can be regularly starved to trigger accelerated egg production. Their cages are stacked, the ones below covered with the filth from those above. All the birds must have their beaks cut off - done without anesthetic - to prevent them from pecking each other to death. Antibiotics keep the poultry alive, but not for long, so hormones speed them to slaughter. The hormones also produce tumors, and when the tumors are visible those birds become soup.
This is a bare sampling of the general misery, and there are many, many isolated cases of far worse treatment. We are starting to hear about it more because in some places the factory farms are now pushing up against human housing, producing a stink and plague of flies that warn of viruses slipping through the doors. This is not a metaphor. Flies are now proven capable of carrying bird flu for up to 3 hours. Bzzzz.
In these squalid conditions, sicknesses that would weaken and kill the few birds in a backyard or family farm, creating a literal dead end for viruses, are rampant because they are quickly passed back and forth among millions and billions of chickens in an unbroken stream. Here is where the best science tells us that almost certainly the deadly bird flu unnaturally and inevitably evolved from a lesser cousin. The meat industry has done everything thinkable to stop this plague, short of a moratorium on the practice of crowding. The focus has been on vaccinating every animal and eliminating free-range operations because when the disease escapes from the factories and infects farmyard animals the opportunity for human contact is multiplied. But the virus has not been stopped, despite the fact that most of the vaccines, antibiotics, and hormones manufactured globally are given to livestock, because each new generation of hens delivers it afresh. Instead, new pandemic threats are emerging in the form of yet more antibiotic resistant organisms.
We've descended now and are crossing a broad flood plain dedicated to feed corn. Even with human grain stores at their lowest level on record, more and more arable land is used every day to grow feed for factory farms, about a third of all farmland currently. And about a third of our fresh water is used to grow this feed and process the meat. Perhaps up to a third of greenhouse gasses are from livestock (UN Report), more from cattle alone than all human transportation combined. The animals produce more feces than the entire human population too, about two trillion pounds annually in America alone. Its disposal is poorly regulated, most of it ending up in waterways, decimating the fisheries, although as much of the fecal and slaughter waste as possible is sold for animal food and fertilizer. This is how the world first learned of the bird flu virus, in 2005, when it escaped from a fish farm fed from the waste of a CAFO, both operated by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on Qinghai Lake in China. On June 27th of 2007, the FAO announced that avian influenza is now entrenched and so will continue to spread among animals, despite improved control efforts. And on August 23rd, 2007, the FAO called for an end to the practice of crowding animals, blaming intensive farming practices for the growing pandemic threat - a call that's been almost entirely ignored by media, business, and government.
The Coming Plague?
The UN World Health Organization (WHO) has six levels of pandemic alert. The first two are color-coded green: one - the low risk between pandemics; and two - the higher risk when a new disease first appears in animals. Next are the yellows: level three, where WHO says we are now - a pandemic among animals but no or very limited human-to-human transmission; and level four, where others say we are already - to be declared when WHO says there is "evidence of increased human-to-human transmission". From there we will be a cough away from "significant human-to-human transmission", level five, orange alert. And red alert is then inevitable: pandemic - "efficient human-to-human transmission". In fact, the US Center for Disease Control (CDC) announced in the spring of 2007 that a human bird flu pandemic is already inevitable because the virus is so widespread among animals.
But is it inevitable? As the alert levels rose, we mobilized response. By culling the free-range poultry, and so confining the virus mostly to CAFOs, we've so far kept it from infecting anyone with seasonal flu and so "reassorting" -- combining with seasonal flu into a new virus -- to create a perhaps easily transmitted disease. Such a reassortment is likely what happened with the 1918 bird flu when a third of the world fell ill and as many as 40 million died from a virus originating in US factory farms on the central plains. Then that virus suddenly and mysteriously became less virulent. Now, when you get your annual flu shot, that's covered, the ever-mutating variation on that old killer, which still kills many thousands every year.
A combination of the seasonal flu and this new bird flu virus could be the worst disaster in human history, although almost certainly far less deadly than avian influenza alone because most of us already have partial immunity to the winter flu, and that immunity would likely partially protect us from the combination. The planners are planning for just such a repeat of that 1918 scenario, with as many as 100 million dead, the numbers greater than a century ago because populations are greater and less isolated. And the collateral damage vastly greater because we are all one global marketplace now, a huge house of cards. But various strains are now killing up to nearly 80% of those who fall ill, so if a third of us catch one of those, and a third or more is usual with a new flu, then that is at least one billion dead, without counting collateral damage. It isn't that our emergency planners aren't looking at that possibility, it's just that there is no health strategy possible for the unthinkable, not to say no plan of any kind. Here in America, for instance, the laws were changed in 2006 in anticipation of the unthinkable: the president was given authority to use the normally state-administered national guard to enforce martial law.
The ghostly-distant Colorado Rocky Mountains, our vacation destination, have suddenly become a low, sharp silhouette as the Sun drops behind them. At last I can raise the visor to reveal more than just my sliver of road, and as I do my fingers brush across something glossy and vaguely familiar. It's a warning label: "Do not read this while operating the vehicle...!" My friend peeks at me sideways as I chuckle. America, America, land of litigation. Our diligence sometimes seems more than a little misdirected, and this time it is our diligence in keeping the virus away from people that threatens to make the worst-case scenario a reality. Hidden between alert levels three and four is a danger that seems as if it's broken loose from a Stephen King novel: efficient bird-to-human (B2H) transmission, something the virus is pressured to accomplish by our efforts to control it. That might just make the undiluted asian virus the inevitable pandemic because efficient B2H could be the same trick as efficient H2H, without the cough and on the wing. Stopping that from happening requires shutting down the factory farms: this ultimate B2H must evolve between birds before being passed to people. Instead, we've accelerated the growth of the industry by closing traditional farms.
It's a bonus for the CAFOs that culling free-range poultry eliminates the competition and so increases demand for their product, and indeed they have led the push. The CAFOs exploded across Asia in the 1990s, as restrictions on free enterprise were lifted, because cheap labor and little regulation maximizes profits. Last summer we had confirmation of a new strain there that sometimes does not kill chickens, perhaps accounting for the fact that many human infections have had no known source. And last October 24th, the FAO announced that the virus is now found to be asymtomatic in some ducks and geese in Germany, so that Europe should prepare for "further waves of avian influenza outbreaks". Together with the ever-increasing ineffectiveness of livestock vaccinations, this means it's not only nearly impossible to keep the disease from increasing in factory farms but the threat to humans is substantially elevated. And scientists in Indonesia - where there are reports of a bird flu strain 20 to 30 times less susceptible to the Tamiflu antiviral - report more efficient B2H transmission. At first the WHO said no, no not yet, but soon we had comfirmation that the virus is able to move directly from birds into the human upper respiratory track, a key step on the path to pandemic.
When clusters of human infections appeared during flu season last winter, the world threw everything it had at them, and we survived to continue the fight another year.
An Alternative Future
It's obvious that the solution is to close the factory farms. But they're the bread and butter of the pharmaceutical industry, and they provide meat for almost every restaurant and supermarket in the world. Aided by corporate media collusion, the drug and food industries become de facto policy makers. But the most important policy maker remains the consumer: to end factory farming it's only necessary that consumers stop buying their products.
Shutting down the CAFOs would end this unconscionable maltreatment of animals and dramatically slow bird flu and many other diseases, so that the pharmaceutical industry would have a chance to move a step ahead. And it would deliver many more unquantifiable benefits because an end to chemically raised, cheap meat would be a powerful blow against global warming, heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and other diseases, as well as constitute a preemptive strike against the resource wars that have begun with oil and will soon be waged for water. And it would be the beginning of the end, perhaps, of the cloning of the very worst industries emerging from America. Maybe even bring a stop to little girls budding at 6 and sooner.
We reach the end of our day's journey, an enclave peppered with ubiquitous inns, service stations, and fast food. My friend goes to lift her sleeping girl. Mom is pregnant with her second child, so I move to silently assist. But then I can't help but tell her that 90% of pregnant women who fell ill in 1918 died, their lungs victims of their bodies' heightened immune response to the virus' virulence - a "cytokine storm". Not a good bedtime story, but it's the truth, and I think we must do better than look away. She responds that since her daughter began to bud they've eaten only locally grown and organic foods, the most powerful positive choice she says we can make for our planet, our communities, and ourselves. Animals raised organically receive no drugs, and so cannot be kept in crowded conditions because they wouldn't survive more than a few weeks. And people who choose to not eat abused animals can look at themselves in the mirror. It is possible to just wake up.
Organic produce and dairy often cost as much as twice what we're paying for factory food, largely because of wrong-headed tax subsidies and regulations that favor chemically-enhanced production. Organic meat is a bit more money than that, not only because of similar backwards protections, but because the animals must both consume organic feed and have some space to breath. It's that space that is the solution. Still, the price isn't terribly prohibitive - about the same as it's always been for quality - and worth every penny because much of the money makes its way back to traditional farms. And in addition to these modern family farms, there are upwards of 800 million people who depend on subsistence farming, their animals often providing all their meat and much of their indispensable income.
Because of the global push to eliminate such backyard livestock, it is the saddest irony on Earth that factory farming may now be the fastest growing cause of both obesity in the developed world and starvation everywhere else. But last year, Gates Foundation launched a program aimed at raising production at subsistence farms and bringing those goods to market. This could be our best hope for meeting the UN Millennium Goal of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger. And together, we might yet stop the pandemic threat by ending industrial meat production. There's still time if no more is wasted. The factory farms are going down in any event because antibiotics cannot keep pace. So it's just a matter of whether or not we choose to risk the cradle and all going down too. Meanwhile, every day there are more CAFOs.
Revised September 20, 2008