"NAFTA Flu": Swine Flu
Has Roots in Forcing Poor Countries to Accept Western Agribusiness
Robert Wallace, professor and
author of the book 'Farming Human Pathogens'
interviewed by Amy Goodman
www.democracynow.org/, April 29,
As the US reports its first known death
from the global swine flu, the World Health Organization has raised
its pandemic threat level. Several countries around the world
have banned the import of US and Mexican pork products. We speak
to professor and author Robert Wallace, who says the swine flu
is partly the outcome of neoliberal policies that forced poorer
countries to open their markets to poorly regulated Western agribusiness
Robert Wallace, Visiting professor in
the Department of Geography at the University of Minnesota and
author of the forthcoming book Farming Human Pathogens: Ecological
Resilience and Evolutionary Process. He blogs at Farming Pathogens.
AMY GOODMAN: As fears of a possible worldwide
pandemic of swine flu continue to grow, the World Health Organization
raised its pandemic threat level Tuesday, and WHO chief Keiji
Fukuda said a pandemic was a "very serious possibility"
but still not inevitable.
Mexican health authorities confirmed seven
deaths but put the suspected death toll from swine flu at 159
and said over 2,500 people have been sickened. New cases have
appeared in cities across the United States and in Australia,
Canada, Spain, Israel, Britain and New Zealand. Suspected cases
are being investigated in countries across Europe, Asia and Latin
With sixty-five confirmed cases in the
United States, forty-five of which are in New York, President
Obama asked Congress for $1.5 billion in supplemental funding.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organization, meanwhile, is sending a team to Mexico to investigate
claims that industrial pig farms were the source of the outbreak
in humans. Several countries around the world have banned the
import of US and Mexican pork products. The pork industry has
raised concerns over the nomenclature of the influenza strain
and is lobbying to call the virus by its scientific name, H1N1.
I'm joined now via Democracy Now! video
stream from Minneapolis by Robert Wallace, who has written extensively
about avian influenza. He is a visiting professor in the Department
of Geography at the University of Minnesota. He's author of the
forthcoming book Farming Human Pathogens: Ecological Resilience
and Evolutionary Process. He blogs at farmingpathogens.wordpress.com.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Robert Wallace.
Start off by just explaining what is the swine flu.
ROBERT WALLACE: Well, the swine flu is
a influenza. It's influenza A H1N1. The "H" refers to
hemagglutinin molecule. That's a molecule on the surface of the
influenza that allows the virus to key into its target cell. "N"
refers to neuraminidase. That's the molecule also on the surface
of the influenza, but it allows the influenza, once it's born,
to key out of the cell that it's been replicated in. And there
are sixteen different types of H hemagglutinins and nine different
types of neuraminidases. And so, they can recombine in different
combinations. We have in this case H1N1.
That was the pathogen that caused the
1918 pandemic, which killed 50 to 100 million people around the
world. Since that time, descendants of that pandemic strain have
become less virulent and become seasonal influenza that we-some
of us are infected with from one winter to the next.
This H1N1-excuse me-is entirely different,
in the sense of that it does have H1, and it does have N1, but
it also has genes from other organisms. So it's not just a human
pathogen. It also contains genes from pigs, genes from birds,
as well as genes from-when I-influenza-genes from pig influenza,
I should be very clear about that, and genes from bird influenza,
as well as genes from human influenza.
And this H1N1 apparently arose in Veracruz
and subsequently spread from there. It spread to states nearby,
up to Mexico City, and was able to get on the international transportation
network and make its way across the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Wallace, you've called
it the "NAFTA flu." Why?
ROBERT WALLACE: Well, swine flu-in some
ways, the pork industry is kind of correct. "Swine flu"
is a bit a misnomer, but not in the way they think. Because of
the reasons I stated, it's actually comprised of influenzas from-that
have typically infected swine, typically infected birds and humans.
But the problem is, is that puts the onus
on the swine as being the cause for why this kind of influenza
has come about, and it's just that is simply not the case. The
swine are not in the driver's seat. They are not in a position
to organize themselves into what are now cities of pigs that stretch
around the world.
We really have to go back to the livestock
revolution. Before World War II, poultry and pigs were basically
farmed in backyard operations across this country. So we're talking
about poultry flocks of the size of seventy chickens. After the
World War II, all those independent farming operations were-many
of them were basically put under one roof and increasingly put
under the control of particular corporations-Holly Farms, Tyson,
Perdue. And the geography of the poultry and pork change. So,
while previously pork and poultry were grown across the country,
it was now grown, or they're now raised within only a few southeastern
states here in the United States. After the livestock revolution,
poultry and pigs were now being grown and raised in much larger
populations, so we go from seventy poultry now up to populations
of 30,000 at a time. So we have cities of pigs and poultry.
That model was subsequently spread around
the world. So, starting in the 1970s, the livestock revolution
was brought to East Asia. You have the CP Group, which is now
the fourth-world's fourth-largest poultry company, in Thailand.
That company subsequently brought the livestock revolution into
China once China opened up its doors in 1980. So we have cities
of poultry and pork developing around the world.
And this phenomenon goes hand in hand
with the very structural adjustment programs that the IMF and
the World Bank helped institute during this time. So if you're
a poor country, you're having financial difficulties, in order
to get some money to bail you out, you had to go to the International
Monetary Fund for a loan. And in return, the IMF would make demands
on you to change your economy in such a way that would allow you-will
force you to open up your economy to outside corporations, including
agricultural companies. And, of course, that would have a detrimental
effect on domestic agriculture. So, small companies within poor
countries could not out-compete large agribusinesses from the
North that are subsidized by the industrial governments. So they're
not able to compete with them, so there's-they either must contract
their labor and land to the companies, foreign companies that
are coming into their country, or they basically retire out of
the business and sell their land to the large companies that are
coming in. So, in other words, the spread of the cities of pork
and poultry go hand in hand with this structural adjustment program.
And, of course, NAFTA is our local version
of that. The North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in
1993, instituted in 1994, and has had a subsequent effect on how
poultry and pigs are raised in Mexico. So, from that time, the
pattern I just described, the small farmers had to either bulk
up, in terms of acquiring the farms around them, acquiring the
pigs around them, or had to sell out to agribusinesses that were
coming in. So the Smithfield subsidiary that is now being accused
of being the possible plant of origin for this H1N1 is a subsidiary
of an outside corporation.
AMY GOODMAN: And what do you see, Robert
Wallace, finally, about the significance of the World Health Organization
saying that the global swine flu pandemic is a very serious possibility?
And what needs to be done right now?
ROBERT WALLACE: Well, I mean, it is a
serious possibility. I mean, there is no doubt that it can very
well threaten into becoming a pandemic. It's well on its way.
In my mind, the train has left the station. The question now is
whether or not it's going to be dangerous to the point that it
develops the virulence of the 1918 pandemic. That is still very
much an open question.
One of the things we must keep in mind
is that even if it is not currently killing a lot of people at
this point-and we should be thankful that's the case-it could
still evolve a greater virulence over time. The 1918 pandemic
was characterized by an outbreak in the spring and then subsequently
followed by a much more deadly outbreak in the following fall.
So we really have to keep an eye on how this thing evolves. And
it's very much a changing situation, as we can see from this past
week, a changing situation from day to day.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Wallace, I want to
thank you for being with us, joining us by Democracy Now! video
stream from Minneapolis. His forthcoming book is called Farming
Human Pathogens. We'll link to his blog at democracynow.org.