Of Swine and Swine Flu

A Dirty PigFor those who missed it, the source of the present swine flu pandemic may have been found. According to the Times, the disease has been traced to a Mexican town of 3000 people called La Gloria. La Gloria has the dubious distinction of being located near a massive pig farm, which is partially owned by the American firm Smithfield Foods. The Times says this company is one of the largest producers of pork products in the world.

Those who eat pork regularly should discontinue reading at this point. The pig farm in question is so large (approximately 1 million animals are raised there per annum) that in order to dispose of the resulting waste, the owners have created what can best be described as “manure lagoons”. This has the dreadful side-effect of drawing swarms of flies which attack La Gloria on a regular basis; according to reports, some sixty percent of the town’s population have sought medical attention since February. It is entirely possible it was this combination of filth, disease and lack of concern for the local population that caused the outbreak. Indeed, the first identified victim of swine flu is a 4 year old boy from La Gloria, who has since, fortunately, recovered.

The virus has spread as far as New Zealand; the United Nations, according to the BBC, has given up the idea of containment already. Apparently, we’re just going to have to buckle down, take our flu medication, and hope for the best. Optimism is unjustified, however: as of this morning the death toll from the epidemic is 152.

Much of the focus so far has been on tightening borders, which perhaps is a case of fixing the barn door after the proverbial horse has bolted. However there appears to be much less introspection in regards to how the disease began in the first place, and what can be done to prevent other such plagues from threatening us; what few are apparently willing to say is at the heart of the problem lays the current economic order, and the attitude of the West towards the Third World.

We live in an era of outsourcing. It is very rare that I can go to a clothing store or electronics shop and find anything that bears the label “Made in Britain” or “Made in the USA”. Most goods are now made in far flung destinations like China, India or Malaysia. The goods are cheaper, yes, but what is the real cost associated with producing them?

It is certainly true that we are outsourcing our carbon emissions, particularly to China; this is definitely a cost. However, the price of cheap food, clothing and chemicals has long had terrible implications for those who produce them. This has been evident since the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal, India. For those who don’t recall this incident, in December 1984, Union Carbide’s pesticide factory exploded, releasing a toxic gas which killed over 8,000 people. The principal reasons for the disaster lay in the use of cheaper, but more hazardous chemicals, poor staff training and shoddy plant design and maintenance.

More recently, the author Naomi Klein visited facilities in Southeast Asia from which we get much of our sportswear as part of research for her magnum opus, “No Logo”: the conditions in terms of working hours, pay, and safety are appalling. Even items such as high-end basketball shoes generate little return for those who produce them. Low costs plus high prices have made a lot of companies extremely wealthy; however, low costs plus relatively low prices can also yield the same results.

For example, outsourced food: this is a more recent development. New preservation techniques mean that we can get cheap green beans from Kenya, chillies from Tanzania and bananas from South America without noticing anything amiss, at least until we try organic products and compare. Bananas are of particular interest, and illustrates the aggressive drive towards cheapness and its resulting costs to poor nations: the World Trade Organisation ruled against the European Union’s preferred trade agreements with former colonies, which had previously worked to give these Third World countries a protected income. This has been devastating to small countries like St. Lucia; while the costs to the consumer of the former regime were approximately $2 billion a year, now St. Lucia faces an uncertain future. According to the CIA World Factbook, St. Lucia is a transit point for illegal drugs from South America: faced with declining revenues from bananas and tourism, and vulnerable to external economic shocks, who is to say that this trade won’t increase?

The winner in the banana wars are not necessarily the consumer; rather, it is large corporations like Del Monte, which the Economist described as the “Wal Mart” of bananas. Because of their industrial farming processes, they can produce more bananas, more cheaply than St. Lucia could dare dream. We in the West get more low-cost bananas, however in terms of quality, this is as industrial as the processes which created them. All the while, St. Lucia suffers.

We should be warned, however: globalisation now means that problems rarely reside in one country alone. Swine flu’s arrival in the furthest flung corners of the globe illustrates the point: our demands for cheap pork led to cost cutting, which leads to bad hygiene, which in turn creates the conditions for disease which is now threatening humanity. The question that no one is asking is what’s next: do our demands for cheap bananas lead to more heroin on the streets of say, Miami or Chicago? Do our requirements for cheap electronics, now suddenly withdrawn, create an unstable China, which in turn becomes more militant as a way of mollifying its people? Disaster is only predictable to a certain extent: the true shape of horror often only crystalises after it is too late and is usually worse than our darkest dreams.

The only way around it, perhaps, is the Western consumer resigning himself or herself to the fact that things cost what they cost. This sounds simple, but the bargain hunter in all of us has led to an expectation that somehow everything we purchase can and should be cheaper. We go to stores like Aldi and Lidl in the hope that their chicken, for example, is the same as what we would get in a more expensive store; however, it’s a con, the chicken is injected with water and chemicals to bolster its weight. If manufacturers can’t get away with that trick, they send the pigs to La Gloria, and then the price gets paid when people die of swine flu in Mexico, Scotland, Spain or New Zealand.

The best hope, in my opinion, is that the Fairtrade movement, which has scored some successes, becomes more prevalent. While no regime is one hundred percent foolproof, at least we have more certainty that the conditions in which Fairtrade items are produced are less likely to have anything to do with “manure lagoons”. Fair trade, I suggest, should be extended not only to clothing (progress has been recently been made in this area), but perhaps also to electronics, toys and other manufactured goods. Furthermore, the link between cheapness and disaster needs to be better illustrated and understood; this should act as a powerful incentive to trade ethically and to make Westerners remember the real bottom line: things cost what they cost, just the costs can be paid up front, or swing ’round later and make us pay even more. Furthermore, the latter tally is not necessarily a price that is just paid in money: it’s a bill paid with one’s health, with one’s safety, and in some cases, with one’s life.

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  • Nothing has changed in 340 years:

    The English Coffee Houses wrote “Even during the plague and the great fire that followed it [1660s], Londoners continued to visit their favourite coffee-houses. Neither Samuel Pepys nor Daniel Defoe, for example, could be persuaded to forgo his daily visit to the coffee-house during this dreadful time, but like every citizen, each was prudent. Patrons of coffee-houses were no longer prepared to talk freely with strangers, and would approach even close acquaintances only after inquiring after their health and that of the family at home. The plague and the fire did much to curtail the prosperity and popularity of the coffee-house…”

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