Microbial Migrations

Photograph by Jean-Michel Clajot/Reporters/Corbis SABA, used with permission

TWO YEARS AGO, the world news media presented viewers with the garish spectacle of thousands of animal carcasses going up in smoke in the British countryside in a desperate attempt to contain the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease there. The effort destroyed more than two million animals and brought tremendous suffering to the country’s farm families. In mid-March of that year, the press reported a related event, in which U.S. federal agents raided a Vermont farm to seize sheep suspected of carrying the biological agents implicated in mad cow disease, the frightening ailment that has led to the slaughter of nearly two hundred thousand cattle in Europe.

The two diseases are not related in any biological sense, of course. Foot-and-mouth is caused by a virus and is not thought to be transmissible to humans, while mad cow is caused by a prion — a poorly understood snip of protein — and is responsible for nearly one hundred human fatalities. The two diseases are connected, however, by the economic environment that allows them to thrive. Their spread from isolated incidents to potentially global epidemics can be traced to trade that crisscrosses the globe, growing international migration, and the practices of industrial agriculture.

For most of history, natural boundaries such as mountains, deserts, and ocean currents have served to isolate ecosystems and many of the species they contain. But rapid growth in trade and travel in recent decades has made these physical barricades permeable. More than five billion tons of goods were shipped across the world’s oceans and other waterways in 1999, over six times as much as in 1955. More people are flying greater distances than ever before, with some two million people now crossing an international border every day. This explosion in the movement of goods and people across international borders is fast leading to the spread of infectious disease as well as ecological disruptions with unpredictable consequences. Nascent efforts at international cooperation are struggling to deal with the problems posed by today’s burgeoning microbial migrations.

Although mad cow disease (officially known as bovine spongiform encephalitis or BSE) is much less contagious than foot-and-mouth, it presents a far graver risk for humans. Mad cow spreads when an animal consumes feed containing the remnants of infected animals, and humans get it by eating infected meat. Since 1986, the year mad cow disease was detected in the U.K., British meat has been shipped around the world. So have British feed products, which can harbor this poorly understood illness. Though estimates vary widely, experts project that as many as three hundred thousand to five hundred thousand Britons could die over the next thirty years from BSE, depending on the incubation period and the success of past attempts to eliminate the disease from the British herd.

Mad cows have already shown up in nearly a dozen European nations, Canada, and, more recently, in the United States. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has declared that all nations should consider themselves at risk, but many seem unprepared to deal with the threat. A 2000 survey by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that one in four American slaughterhouses and feed processing plants fails to take measures to avert mad cow disease, such as the proper labeling of feed that contains animal parts and implementing systems to prevent commingling of cattle feed with feed for other animals.

THE FOOT-AND-MOUTH and mad cow crises have brought home the fact that everyone, everywhere, is becoming dependent on food that comes from farther and farther away. Some 650 million tons of food are shipped around the planet each year — up fourfold from 165 million tons in 1960. The value of food trade grew to $417 billion in 1999, nearly three times the figure in 1960 and double the value in 1970.

As agriculture becomes integrated into the global economy, the distance from farmer to consumer is increasing, even in places where the same food could be grown locally. For instance, in the United Kingdom, food now travels fifty percent farther on average than it did two decades ago to get from the field to the dinner table. Although British soils and climate allow nearly year-round production of many crops, including lettuce, cabbage, strawberries, and pears, self-sufficiency in these foods has gradually declined.

More food transport means a greater likelihood of spreading diseases faster and farther than ever before. Compared to the more localized 1967 outbreak of foot-and-mouth, the 2001 outbreak instantly went nationwide. “Modern food systems are open,” explains Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at Thames Valley University, “just as older ones were more closed. Whereas in the past, meat was reared on homegrown feed, killed, and consumed relatively locally, today the farmer is but a link in a global food economy. Foods trundle up and down motorways and across continents.”

One insidious result of such a long-distance food system is that it breeds long-distance thinking. Concerns over food trade and far-off export markets begin to take priority over local food security. With domestic food markets in the industrial world saturated, food manufacturers and traders crave a greater share of emerging export markets as a way to boost revenues. The global marketplace pits producers from one nation against producers of every other nation, generating intense pressure to cut corners – by using unhygienic waste products as feed, for instance, or ignoring animal welfare. Razor-thin profit margins favor consolidation at every link of the food chain, since larger operations, whether farms or slaughterhouses, have the advantage of greater volume.

As a result of these and other economic constraints, the modern animal farm – in England, the U.S., and elsewhere – not only allows but creates conditions that invite the outbreak of disease. Animal husbandry that focuses on an appropriate diet, access to fresh air, exercise, and good animal health in general will be the best defense against most illnesses. Instead, industrial livestock operations cram thousands of genetically uniform animals into unhygienic warehouses. Manure and slaughterhouse waste are routinely recycled into animal feed, and animals are processed into meat at breakneck speed in the presence of blood, feces, and other contagion.

The growing emphasis on the global food market also disregards local ecological processes – the nuances of soil, water, climate, plants, insects, and other wildlife that determine what a specific land can produce well. For example, when Holsteins, Herefords, or other cattle are bred in temperate conditions and then shipped to the tropics, they often fall prey to unfamiliar parasites, heat and humidity, and reduced digestive functioning. Local breeds that are adapted to an area’s weather conditions, forage, and pests suffer less stress and disease. In contrast to locally sensitive agricultural practices, industrial agriculture is an exercise in homogenization, transplanting a single standardized system of production to any and all locations.

THE TRADEOFFS BETWEEN SERVING THE NEEDS of local markets and catering to the global community have become dramatically apparent in the case of recent outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease. In the space of a few months in 2001, the governments of Britain and a few other European nations slaughtered nearly 2.5 million animals. In Europe, authorities slaughtered numerous healthy animals to create buffer zones around known infections. Livestock generally recover from foot-and-mouth, although milk production and weight can be affected in the short term. Eating the meat of sick animals is not thought to harm humans. Putting local food needs first would have suggested a strategy that included selective culling, vaccination, and steps to improve defenses against future outbreaks, such as building the health and diversity of the British herd.

Although the epidemic has peaked in Britain, the detection, transportation, and slaughter of millions of mostly healthy animals cost the British economy several billion dollars. The culling also eliminated some rare breeds of sheep, goats, and cows that existed only in remote corners of the British Isles – a reduction in biodiversity that will no doubt increase susceptibility to future disease outbreaks. In mid-May of 2001, veterinarians identified foot-and-mouth in the nation’s wild deer population, indicating that the efforts of the previous months might have been in vain – infected deer will be nearly impossible to treat, eradicate, or keep away from farm animals, and will act as a perpetual reservoir of contagion.

Moreover, government-imposed restrictions on movement in the countryside meant that B&Bs and country shops lied vacant, closed, and in some cases going out of business. Jules Pretty of the University of Essex viewed the collapse in rural tourism as the real economic cost of the 2001 outbreak. “Such businesses [lost] $425 million per week. At $1.1 billion, the annual value of livestock exports simply does not compare with the broader damage to rural economies.”

THE RECENT FOOT-AND-MOUTH and mad cow scares, including those in the U.S. and Canada, have brought home to people the world over just how porous national boundaries have become. And it is not only animal diseases that are crossing borders, but human ones as well. International air travel makes it possible for people to reach the other side of the world in far less time than the incubation period for many ailments, as was the case last year with the SARS outbreak that began in China and traveled to North America, Europe, and elsewhere. At the same time, adventure tourism and other pursuits are drawing people to ever more remote locations, increasing the chances that microbes will be introduced to vulnerable populations.

It is now widely believed that HIV was originally harbored in chimpanzees inhabiting the West African rainforest, crossing over into human populations as early as the 1940s. How HIV made the leap from being an isolated condition confined to Africa’s remote hinterlands to its current status as a global pandemic is still a question, but a range of phenomena is thought to have contributed. This includes the paving of the TransAfrica highway, population growth and urbanization, and, ultimately, expanding international travel and migration. As the movement of loggers and hunters into remote parts of West Africa’s forests continues to pick up speed, scientists warn that other dangerous viruses may make the jump from primates to people.

Rare infectious diseases are already appearing in new corners of the globe. The African West Nile virus had never been seen in the Western Hemisphere until October 1999, when it was detected in New York City and surrounding areas and caused several deaths. The disease may have been carried into the U.S. in the blood of an international traveler, by a stow-away mosquito or a smuggled exotic bird, or by a particularly hardy migratory bird. Global climate change may also have contributed to the outbreak by creating weather patterns that facilitate the spread of the disease.

WHILE GLOBALIZATION ACCOUNTS FOR the spread of disease and invasive plants and animals across international borders, it also enables the rapid spread of information and ideas. World media coverage and instant internet updates quickly raise awareness and concern in affected countries and elsewhere.

In Europe the outbreaks transformed public sentiment about the food system. British Environment Minister Michael Meacher told a news conference, “We need a fundamental rethink of what we expect farming to produce. It will certainly be more localized, it will be less internationalized, less dependent on chemicals, more organic.” In Germany the food scares sparked a dramatic about-face on agricultural policy. After the first reports of mad cows in the German herd, the German prime minister replaced the agricultural minister with an environmentalist, who revamped German agricultural policy to include, among other things, a big push for organic farming. The European Union as a whole is poised for similar systematic reforms that will reach beyond quick-fix solutions like animal quarantines and meat irradiation.

The flurry of European food crisis stories in the media has had repercussions in the U.S. as well. Many observers have suggested that the seizure of Vermont sheep was a staged response – a dog-and-pony show intended to demonstrate the supposed vigilance of the U.S. government and meat industry. Critics wondered why the government was so quick to seize these sheep, but wouldn’t shut down American feed mills that violate regulations intended to prevent mad cow.

In discussing the dark side of a global food economy, Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach wrote that it has become painfully clear that “we have no idea where our food is from. We don’t know how it was handled, what it was sprayed with, how it was genetically engineered.” In this sense, the bull market in organic and local foods is no coincidence. Consumers on both sides of the Atlantic, and elsewhere around the world, view organic farming as a more responsible form of food production that is safe from many of the risks inherent in conventional agriculture, including mad cow disease and the surge in antibiotic-resistant microbes.

WHILE RECENT OUTBREAKS of livestock disease have inspired new interest in more localized agriculture, they have at the same time dramatized the need to step up cooperation across international borders to combat shared health and ecological perils. Countries have in fact been working together on these matters for decades, harmonizing regulations for trade in animals and animal products across borders. But an inherent weakness in the international agreements, especially in the U.S., is the tendency for international standard-setting bodies to be disproportionately swayed by the very industries they were created to oversee.

It is becoming clear that a global governance system that will be up to the task of stemming today’s rising tide of biotic mixing will be fundamentally different in character from the post-World War II system in place today. Instead of standard-setting bodies dominated by industry, there will have to be new forums where citizens, farmers, companies, and governments can collaborate across political borders to reshape current agriculture and industrial practices so that they protect the health of the planet’s people and natural systems. The silver lining to the foot-and-mouth and mad cow scares of 2001, and those of today, may be the added political will they may generate for setting this transition in motion.

Hilary French is the author of Vanishing Borders: Protecting the Planet in the Age of Globalization and many other publications. She directs the Global Governance Project at the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute, where she has worked since 1987.

Brian Halweil is a Research Associate at the Worldwatch Institute, where he examines the social and ecological consequences of how we produce food.