"What we are witnessing now is the nadir of western industrialized 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 human 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 first place.
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 more sophisticated 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 encourage 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 [of animals] 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 markets.
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 http://utminers.utep.edu/best/.