by Dr. Steve Best -
"What we are witnessing now is the nadir of western
societies' total disregard for animals. The mass graves represent the
triumph of greed over any other relation we have to other forms of life.
The almost complete absence of any serious debate about whether it
is right to kill this kind of quantity of animals is unbelievable."
Madeleine Bunting, British commentator
In late February 2001, while just beginning to recover
from the devastating effects of Mad Cow Disease (MCD), the British beef
industry was walloped again. This time it was hit by a new wave of
Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD), a viral sickness not seen in Britain since
1967 when the nation slaughtered nearly half a million animals. The
current outbreak, however, is far more serious, with more than 500 farms
struck, at least a thousand confirmed cases in the UK, over a million
animals "culled," the national
economy badly damaged through billions of dollars in lost revenues, and
the legitimacy of the British government and agricultural industry very
much in question in the international arena.
Indeed, the spectacle of mass slaughter has exposed the
irrationalities of modern animal agriculture for all to see. For weeks
on the nightly news around the world, one could see infected, suspect,
and healthy cattle, pigs, and sheep being shot in the head, bulldozed
into vast ditches, piled high, set aflame in towering funeral pyres, or
even dynamited for birds of prey to consume. These powerful images were
to the meat industry what those of American soldiers in body bags were
to the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.
Never before has the insanity of the mass production and consumption of
animal products been so transparent.
Britain: The "Leper of Europe"
Fearing an uncontrollable contagion, Britain has become a sealed
compound. Hundreds of farms are under tight restrictions. Sporting
events such as horseracing, hunting, fishing, and rugby games have been
halted to minimize human traffic. Schools have been temporarily shut
down. National parks, zoos, and hiking trails are closed, and trips to
the countryside are prohibited. Farmers have forbidden visitors and
rarely leave their own property. Ireland canceled plans for its annual
St. Patrick's Day parade. Armed border roadblocks have been set up
throughout Europe. Rare and endangered hoofed species like rhinos and
giraffes have been targeted for slaughter in zoos and parks throughout
Europe. And the crisis has yet to peak.
With fully justified fears, other countries are
carefully scrutinizing British tourists, checking their baggage for
concealed meat (often sniffed out by dogs like illegal drug contraband,
only far more dangerous), and forcing them to wipe their feet in
disinfectant trays before allowing them entry. By March, FMD spread to
Ireland, France, and the Netherlands, provoking an international panic.
Once again, British beef and animal products were banned throughout the
world, much of which now rejects European Union meat and dairy products
as a whole. Europe is enraged at what it perceives to be the arrogance,
complacency, and incompetence of Britain that has recently provoked two
costly catastrophes - MCD and FMD. While MCD alone kills huuman beings,
both MCD and FMD devastate animals and economies.
An Old Plague Returns
Unlike MCD which appeared in the 1980s, FMD is not new. For the last
four centuries, the disease has been epidemic in areas like Africa,
Asia, and the Middle East. There were six outbreaks of FMD in the U.S.
in the 20th century (the last occurring in 1947) that resulted in the
slaughter of over three hundred thousand farm animals. Until now, such
outbreaks were relatively easy to contain. The viral plague spreading
across Europe at this moment is a vivid testament to the problems with
intensive farming methods that breed contagion and a porous global
capitalism built on open trade policies.
FMD is a highly infectious viral disease that can be
spread through animals' blood, urine, waste, semen, and milk. In
addition, humans act as carriers through means such as shoes, clothing,
and automobile tires, hence the restriction of human traffic in Europe.
FMD can be transmitted through infected feed and soil, hay, birds, and
even the wind, making it the Andromeda Strain of livestock disease.
Typically, in wild herbivores like bison, deer, and
antelope, and in cloven-hoofed animals such as cattle, pigs, goats, and
sheep, the disease causes fever, loss of appetite, and painful blisters
on the hoofs and in the mouth. Although the disease can kill very young
or old animals, it is nonfatal to all but 5% of cases. Indeed, many
experts liken the effects of the disease to a bad cold that lasts a
couple of weeks and allows a full recovery, with the added benefit of
the animal being immune to the sickness thereafter. In addition, entire
herds of perfectly healthy animals within the vicinity of infected farms
are massacred and set aflame as "precautionary measures."
If FMD is typically a nonfatal and temporary affliction,
then why the fiery orgy of killing throughout Europe? Why for most of
modern history did livestock acquire FMD, become sick, and recover,
without grisly funeral pyres and billowing plumes of burning flesh?
Herein lies the evil that fans the flames of death. Farmers, agriculture
industries, and veterinarians destroy entire herds not to practice
euthanasia for an inexorably deadly disease, but rather to protect
profits. Animals suffering from FMD eat less, lose weight, become lame,
and produce less milk; consequently, they have diminished market value.
Because governments compensate farmers for their losses, it is cheaper
to kill the old herd and breed a new one than to allow animals to return
to health. TV news images feature farmers crying crocodile tears over
loss of their livestock, but they are grieving over the loss of profits,
not the lives they castrated, de-horned, and tail-docked without
anesthesia; confined in dark, cramped, and filthy stalls; and would have
sent to their horrifying death in the slaughterhouses regardless.
Vaccinate or Annihilate?
Seemingly, vaccinations are an obvious alternative to the livestock
holocaust. In fact, they were used successfully to contain the disease
until 1990 when the EU adopted the British approach to disease
prevention, namely, systematic slaughter. From the perspective of
government and industry, vaccines are problematic. First and foremost,
they argue, vaccines are unreliable as some inoculated animals can test
negative for FMD but nevertheless be infectious. British vets claim it
is impossible to discern whether an animal's antibodies come from the
vaccine or the virus. Some believe that vaccines actually are a factor
in spreading the disease. Moreover, the FMD virus mutates so rapidly, it
is difficult to formulate a viable vaccine. Thus, disease-free countries
wont import vaccinated animals, which defeats the economic purpose of
vaccination. But capital logic also dictates this decision, as it's
cheaper to destroy infected livestock than to prevent infection in the
Vaccine technologies are improving, however, and
countries like Britain are exploring them more seriously now. But the
standard method of disease "control" remains slaughtering both sick and
healthy animals alike. In angry defiance of this scorched earth policy
of culling healthy animals for "preventative measures," farmers
throughout Europe have set up barricades against the animal death
squads. Even Dolly, currently quarantined for safety purposes, is not
safe from the culling madness and ethos of instrumentalization.
According to Dr. Harry Griffin of the Roslin Institute that "invented"
the world's first cloned adult mammal, "Dolly may be unique, but only in
terms of scientific research. In scientific terms, she has served her
purpose." No sentimentality here. If there were any chance whatsoever
Dolly may carry the virus, her "makers" would obligingly put a bullet
through her woolly cloned head.
In a global marketplace, it is indeterminate and perhaps impossible to
identify the origins of FMD. Initially, the British government blamed
Southern nations for the outbreak, but it then was believed to have
originated through meat imported from Asia to a pig-fattening farm in
northeast England. From here, infected swill spread the disease rapidly
throughout British farms and several European countries. Some leading
bioterrorist authorities seriously speculate that an "agro-terrorist"
plots to disrupt the
economies of Britain and other major nations spawned FMD. Various
culprits have been identified as likely suspects, from animal rights
activists (in a calculated effort to discredit the movement) to Saddam
Hussein. If any "terrorists" wanted to spread the virus this moment, it
would be near impossible to stop them and to trace its origin. So long
as the planet is organized around factory farming and a meat-based
economy, all countries are vulnerable to "agro-terrorism." It takes no
technology than a roast beef sandwich to disseminate FMD and completely
disrupt a nation's economy and everyday affairs. The real
agro-terrorists are those who profit from the destruction of human
vitality, animal lives, and the environment.
Yet without doubt, the beef industry is teetering. Beef
sales in the EU had plummeted as much as 80% in the months before the
recent foot and mouth epidemic. British farmers are losing $86 million
every week the FMD crisis unfolds. Jean-Luc Meriaux, head of the
European Union's meat trading association, said that the progressive
migration of FMD to mainland Europe would amount to "an absolute
disaster" for the meat industry, even more catastrophic than MCD. The
economic impact of FMD has reached far beyond the meat and dairy
industries themselves to effect related industries such as tourism and
trucking. Indeed, part of the insanity of the FMD debacle is that the
tourist industry is considerably more important to Britain's economy
than the meat industry. Specifically, whereas the farming industry
brings in $21 billion a year, tourism rings up $96 billion a year. This
amount is over four times that of agriculture, yet national policy has
been oriented to preserving the far less important meat industry so that
insatiable appetites for animal flesh can continue - as much as possible
- to be fed. How tragically illogical and unnecessary.
Despite government admonitions to remain calm throughout
the two-pronged crisis of MCD and HMD, consumers have raided meat
counters and nations like Britain have limited meat stocks and rising
meat prices. Sadly, in the popular mind, meat shortages have been
confused with food shortages and people feel a deprivation rather than
an opportunity to shift to a healthier, more humane, and ecologically
sustainable diet. The impression of food scarcity has been exacerbated
by constant media images of
empty meat counters and disappointed customers. Rather than see the
blinding light, many benighted Europeans have switched to chicken, fish,
and horsemeat (much of it important from "retired" American racing
horses), and have even taken to raiding zoos for consumable flesh.
Coming Soon To A Farm Near You
Just as the United States is highly vulnerable to Mad Cow Disease, so
too, like Britain, can the U.S. be ravaged by FMD, whether spread
through infected feed, the shoes of European tourists, or the bologna
bombs of "agro-terrorists." Should one farm in the U.S. be infected, the
virus could easily migrate from California to Maine and become an
international crisis of the first order. It would take the combined
forces of government agencies and the military to halt the spread of the
virus throughout the nation's
stock of 170 million cattle, pigs, and sheep. Authorities are on record
stating that mass culling methods would be used as the primary means of
controlling the disease, as they were in earlier outbreaks in the U.S.
Still, many feel that the nation remains unprepared and that a FMD
outbreak in the U.S. would be unmanageable. A trillion dollar a year
agriculture industry hangs in the balance
After an onslaught of falling prices, swine fever,
E.coli, salmonella, campylobacter, MCD, and FMD, British farmer Oliver
Edwards laments: "Every way we turn, everything we do - it's all bad
luck." Bad luck? More like the systemic and unavoidable consequences of
an irrational intensive, globalized farming system premised upon an
obscene destruction of life and the earth.
Combine the capitalist profit imperative, a factory farm
system of agriculture, and a global marketplace bustling with human and
animal traffic, global trade organizations and treaties, and you get a
crisis situation where infectious diseases breed rapidly and spread
throughout the entire planet. In the current global economy, an animal
can be bred in Britain, fattened in France, slaughtered in Spain, and
eaten in Ecuador. The pathways of disease, consequently, are difficult
if not impossible to trace. Nor is there any guarantee that after
hundreds of thousands of animals are massacred in the current crisis
further outbreaks will not be lurking right around the corner.
A Blessing in Disguise?
In a highly controversial move, Ingrid Newkirk, President of PETA,
declared that she welcomed the spread of FMD through the U.S, as "it
would wake up consumers." While initially shocking, her logic is hard to
fault. First, billions of livestock are doomed to die no matter what,
and a gunshot to the head is more humane that factory-farm confinement,
long-distance shipping, and a slaughterhouse stun-gun that fails to
render an animal unconscious as it is dismembered piece by piece.
Second, the violence that goes on behind the scenes would be evident for
all to see, such that slaughterhouses would indeed have glass walls.
Third, FMD could cripple the U.S. livestock industry and might likely
farmers to adopt traditional farming techniques and inspire droves of
people to turn to vegetarianism.
Indeed, in European countries such as Germany, which now
boasts a Green Minister of Agriculture, there is a new emphasis on
shifting toward organic farming. Moreover, throughout the world, many
people are so traumatized by the images of bonfires of bodies, they are
turning toward vegetarianism, as vegetarian groups in England and
elsewhere are being bombarded with requests for information. A recent
poll in the UK's The Sunday Times showed that 82% of people would prefer
a return to more
traditional, humane methods of farming, even if it meant paying more for
their food. 12% stated that they have already given up meat in the face
of recent disease outbreaks, and 26% said they would eat less meat or
none at all. Kay Holden, spokesperson for UK's animal rights group,
Animal Aid, said of the new crop of vegetarians: "It's different that it
was during the mad cow epidemic where people became vegetarians out of
fear for what could do to them. This time it's because of the conditions
they've seen on TV."
A Time of Reckoning
But FMD is just an alibi for the many diseases that proliferate
throughout the squalid and overcrowded cages and pens of the factory
farms that breed afflictions in animals, require massive doses of
antibiotics, and do exacerbate the current post-antibiotic crisis that
nullifies once useful drugs.
While the necessity of slaughtering over a million
animals that are actually or potentially infected with FMD is hotly
debated, the undeniable fact remains that billions of animals are
needlessly slaughtered to satisfy ignorant, gluttonous, and unhealthy
cravings for flesh. The inexorable logic of profit and competition
demands that animals be raised as cheaply as possible, under intensive
confinement in mass quantities, using massive amounts of chemicals to
minimize the spread of disease and maximize the size and weight of
animals, employing concentrated economies of scale and long distance
All this killing and trouble -- shooting, bulldozing,
burning, dynamiting, surveillance, and disinfecting -- for the sake of
consuming flesh. Aren't all consumers paying too dear a price for cheap
meat? Clearly the only way out of the debacles of the global meat and
dairy industries is not to enact absurd stopgap, reformist measures like
using thermometers to check for safe cooking temperatures, wiping feet
in disinfectant trays, or testing animals for signs of disease before
slaughter. Rather, society must banish
the entire system of mechanized killing, and shift to a local, organic,
plant-based food system.
The inherent fallacies of factory farming are
increasingly obvious. It is an encouraging sign that vegetarianism is on
the rise. Animal rights activists, vegetarians, and environmentalists
need to seize to the fullest advantage the current twofold crisis of MCD
and FMD to demonstrate the inherent illogic, inhumanity, and
destructiveness of the global system of meat and dairy industries. Let
us turn tragedy into opportunity.
Dr. Steve Best is Associate Professor of Philosophy and
Humanities at the University of Texas, El Paso. He is Vice-President of
the Vegetarian Society of El Paso, a long time vegan and animal rights
activist, and author of numerous books and articles in the areas of
social theory, postmodernism, and cultural studies. Some of his writings
are posted at
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