For the capitalist class, agriculture and farming are essentially no different from shipbuilding or mining. The capitalist sets out to extract maximum profit from his undertaking, whether this involves cattle or cars. In order to do this, the capitalist must intensify production whilst reducing all other overheads: wages, quality, safety etc.
In agriculture, this has led to the development of intensive farming, a practice whereby the quality of the food produced is sacrificed in favour of the quantity.
Once again, in May this year, the mega-farms stand accused of having produced a deadly threat to human life. The latest threat is H1N1, or swine flu, a relative of sorts to the bird (avian) flu H5N1, which caused panic in Britain in 2007 following the outbreak at the Bernard Matthews turkey farm in East Anglia. (See ‘ Bird flu – spread by capitalist greed ‘, Proletarian, April 2007)
Originating in Mexico, the current outbreak of swine flu very quickly passed into the US and has since spread to a number of other countries around the world. At the beginning of May, the British government launched a nationwide campaign, issuing every household with a leaflet about good hygiene after cases of swine flu led to the closure of a number of schools.
It remains unclear whether the outbreak is over or whether, as health secretary Alan Johnson believes, a second, more serious, wave will occur later this year. It is quite possible that a more lethal strain may develop in time for the traditional British flu season, but we wryly note the observation made by Workers World that “fear of a swine flu pandemic is spreading much faster than the virus itself”!
Where has it come from?
As the scientists and investigators probe into the development and origins of the outbreak, initial inquiries seem to point towards a mammoth pig farm near the Mexican town of La Gloria run by Smithfield Foods.
Smithfield Foods is a US corporation and the world’s largest producer and processor of pork products. The farm near La Gloria produces nearly 1m animals a year and is the cause of much suffering for both the animals and the local population.
Hillel Cohen, a doctor of public health writing in Workers World, had this to say: “Local residents from the towns of La Gloria and Perote in the Mexican state of Veracruz have been fighting the pork-breeding giant for years. [The farm is situated on land which many Mexicans feel was stolen from them in 1992 by the pro-US government.]
“Producing close to a million hogs annually, the company maintains huge lagoons of hog manure as well as open-air dumps for rotting remains of hogs that die before being slaughtered. Fumes from the hog waste foul the air for miles and residents believe that their ground water may have also been contaminated. Swarms of flies that feed on the manure are in close reach of the towns.
“It is well known that flies can spread avian flu by carrying material from infected bird droppings from place to place. It is possible that flies feeding on the hog manure may also be in contact with bird droppings and became the mechanism for mixing virus material from hogs, birds and humans, which is now causing the outbreak.
“According to reports from the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, local residents tried to block the construction of the farm as early as 2005. A year ago, several activists were arrested by Veracruz authorities, who have worked closely with Granjas Carroll [the Mexican arm of Smithfield Foods] to suppress opposition to the huge hog operation.
“Long before the swine flu outbreak made it into the international news, hundreds of La Gloria residents were complaining of severe respiratory infections, with many developing into pneumonia. Pneumonia is one of the severe complications of influenza infection. Veratect, a US private company that monitors health outbreaks around the world for its subscribers, noticed the outbreak in Veracruz over a month ago and called the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC). With its attention still on alleged – and non-existent – bioterrorism, the CDC ignored these calls for several weeks.” (‘Swine flu, pigs and profits’, 6 May 2009)
Writing in The Guardian, Mike Davis, a professor at the University of California, explained that “Since its identification during the Great Depression, H1N1 swine flu had only drifted slightly from its original genome. Then in 1998 a highly pathogenic strain began to decimate sows on a farm in North Carolina and new, more virulent versions began to appear almost yearly, including a variant of H1N1 that contained the internal genes of H3N2 (the other type-A flu circulating among humans).
“Researchers interviewed by Science worried that one of these hybrids might become a human flu (both the 1957 and 1968 pandemics are believed to have originated from the mixing of bird and human viruses inside pigs), and urged the creation of an official surveillance system for swine flu: an admonition, of course, that went unheeded in a Washington prepared to throw away billions on bioterrorism fantasies.
“But what caused this acceleration of swine flu evolution? … Animal husbandry in recent decades has been transformed into something that more closely resembles the petrochemical industry than the happy family farm depicted in school readers.
“In 1965, for instance, there were 53m US hogs on more than 1m farms; today, 65m hogs are concentrated in 65,000 facilities. This has been a transition from old-fashioned pig pens to vast excremental hells, containing tens of thousands of animals with weakened immune systems suffocating in heat and manure while exchanging pathogens at blinding velocity with their fellow inmates.” (‘The swine flu crisis lays bare the meat industry’s monstrous power’, 27 April 2009)
This statement of Mr Davis’s is very similar to some of the conclusions drawn by Proletarian. In April 2007, we reported on the conditions of the birds kept at Bernard Matthews turkey farms. At that time, we wrote: “The birds are reared in tight, crowded conditions with limited room for any kind of movement. They tend to stand on a thick layer of impacted litter and droppings and are unlikely to see any daylight except, possibly, en route to the slaughterhouse. This warm, nutrient-rich environment creates ideal conditions for the spread of disease. Moreover, the birds are routinely dosed with various antibiotics to fend off potential infections and with hormones to speed up growth, both of which reduce immune function and weaken the birds against diverse strains of disease.” (Proletarian, op cit)
Whether turkeys or hogs, capitalist production methods remain the same. Mike Davis continued the story: “Last year a commission convened by the Pew Research Center issued a report on ‘industrial farm animal production’ that underscored the acute danger that ‘the continual cycling of viruses … in large herds or flocks [will] increase opportunities for the generation of novel virus through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human to human transmission’.
“The commission also warned that promiscuous antibiotic use in hog factories (cheaper than humane environments) was sponsoring the rise of resistant staph infections, while sewage spills were producing outbreaks of E coli and pfiesteria (the protozoan that has killed 1bn fish in Carolina estuaries and made ill dozens of fishermen).
“Any amelioration of this new pathogen ecology would have to confront the monstrous power of livestock conglomerates such as Smithfield Farms (pork and beef) and Tyson (chickens). The commission reported systemic obstruction of their investigation by corporations, including blatant threats to withhold funding from cooperative researchers.”
So, the monopolies are obstructing and obscuring from view the reality on the ground: that mega-farms, run by them, are producing products (in this case meat) at industrial rates; that they are paying no due care to the waste products and bi-products they create (in this case manure and carcasses); and that this, in turn, is creating a public health emergency.
Mike Davis has correctly observed that this looks like something you would expect from traditional heavy industries, like the petrochemical industry. In fact, however, it is the modern-day capitalist production technique, and, applied to any branch of production, the same problems occur. Whether it’s pollution of our rivers, waterways and air, or contamination of our food chain, the problems we see developing all around us are the logical consequence of monopoly capitalism and its drive for maximum profit.
Swine flu, like bird flu, is not purely the result of a natural process of the evolution of influenza. Modern-day capitalism, driven by the need for profit before all else, is creating the conditions for a world health crisis of colossal proportions.
Poor nations, without good public-health systems, but with plenty of cheap labour, are precisely the places where monopolies will, most blatantly and outrageously, flout health laws and public safety standards (which, in any case, are generally weaker to start with, and less rigorously enforced, in the oppressed nations) in their quest to extract maximum profit. So long as the drive for profit remains their primary and overriding goal, companies like Smithfield will continue to produce meat in the same way, regardless of the unnecessary suffering entailed as well as the disastrous ecological or human costs of their methods.
Only under socialism will it be possible to harness the productive forces of society, in a planned and rational way, and make them work in harmony with the planet and to the benefit of the working class.