Sickened by modern farming?

Agriculture has provided great benefits to mankind, yet greens are keen to blame it for the swine flu pandemic.

The emergence of agriculture was among the most important events in the history of humanity. Evolutionary psychologists pinpoint the rise of agriculture 12,000 years ago as the time at which conventional selection pressure ended and human evolution effectively stopped (1). Yet while agriculture has been central to the development of society, both materially and intellectually, there are now many voices doubting its benefits.

The impact of agriculture on society has been profound and goes beyond merely providing greater control over the production of food. For example, the storing of produce necessitated by early agriculture allowed humans to commence the record keeping, fact finding, and commercialisation that would eventually lead to what we now call science. Thus both the agriculture, and the science it brought with it, that began during this period had overwhelmingly positive consequences for humanity.

The green zeitgeist of recent times, however, argues that agriculture, and the domination over nature that it necessarily entails, is ethically dubious and destructive. Followers of James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, in particular, have a peculiarly apocalyptic outlook on the future of humanity following science and agriculture. These fears may broadly be given the name ‘Medean fears’. As a lead-article in New Scientist recently stated, Lovelock may have picked the wrong classical character to embody Nature: ‘If we were to choose a mythical mother figure to characterise the biosphere, it would more accurately be Medea, the murderous wife of Jason of the Argonauts. She was a sorceress, a princess - and a killer of her own children.’ (2)

However, the green movement prefers to claim Gaia for itself and assigns her evil alterego Medea for others; supporting ‘anti-nature’ agriculture makes one a Medean.

While there have always been anarcho-primitivists and others who have opposed agriculture and its associated effects, the rise of fatalistic environmentalism has allowed Medean fears to become decidedly mainstream, from Hollywood films such as The Happening (3) to popular scientific publications such as New Scientist (4). Medean fears are so commonplace that they seem to have entered the collective consciousness.

An excellent recent example of Medean fears is swine flu. The story of swine flu has been constructed to demonstrate that humans and their agricultural habits create pandemics. The very name ‘swine flu’ generates Medean fears, reflecting not just unease over animals, but farmyard animals in particular. It is as if Napoleon and Snowball from George Orwell’s Animal Farm had somehow stumbled upon chemical warfare.

The name swine flu itself reflects how the virus has been reinterpreted to reflect latter-day Medean fears. Pandemics of recent times have been given the titles ‘Asian’ or ‘Russian flu’ (1890s) ‘Spanish flu’ (1918-1920), ‘Asian flu’ (1957-1958), and ‘Hong Kong flu’ (1968-1969). What is it about swine flu that dictates that it should be named after the host animal and not the country of origin, as has previously been the case?

It seems unlikely that this is because no such candidate existed, for while fears over a pandemic were almost immediate, the virus was quite clearly depicted in the media as being solely from Mexico. Indeed, ‘Mexican flu’ was the moniker adopted by the Israelis when the name swine flu was deemed ‘unkosher’ (5). Further, the naming does not appear to be a decision based upon good will towards Mexico. As already discussed on spiked, Mexico has still been widely ostracised (6).

Even in the 1980s when it was apparent that HIV/AIDS had transferred to the human population from primates, it does not seem to have necessitated naming the virus ‘primate immunodeficiency virus’. Rather, this naming trend appears to be a new phenomenon, with both the bird and swine flu viruses being interpreted quite differently to their predecessors. Numerous articles now directly claim that agriculture is inherently dangerous. Those who already opposed agriculture have used swine flu to demonstrate the validity of their claims.

Viva!, a charity which campaigns for veganism and the end of farming issued a press release stating: ‘There is no mystery about this if you look at the conditions in which pigs are reared. They are fed a battery of drugs almost daily from weaning to slaughter to fend off a host of diseases. The consequence is that their immune systems are shot to pieces and their bodies have become a playground for bacteria and viruses. And sadly, it is much the same for poultry.’ (7) Guardian food writer Felicity Lawrence, wrote: ‘Just as an unsustainable financial system caused the current banking crisis, the intensive farming of animals is at the heart of the swine flu pandemic.’ (8)

Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green Party in England and Wales, has called for swine flu to be the catalyst for more wide-ranging reforms upon agricultural legislature, lest more severe Medean repercussions be experienced: ‘As evidence mounts of the links between the increasing intensification of pig and poultry production, and the spread of these animal-based epidemics that can be lethal to humans, it is even more urgent that ministers set up the thoroughgoing commission of inquiry which the Green Party first called for after the avian flu outbreaks a few years ago.’ (9) 

Swine flu is being used as a means to demonstrate that agriculture is not a means to feed the world, but the cause of global catastrophe. Pandemics, however, including those associated with animals, have been present for centuries (as the Black Death illustrates) and that even in modern times zoonoses (infections that jump from animals to humans) have occurred in wild as well as captive populations.

These statements and many others reflecting the broader Medean fear are a cause for great concern. The rise of agriculture has never been smooth or without serious repercussions. But the notion that it either never was, or no longer is, of more benefit than harm deserves to be quickly dismissed. Medean fearmongers spread concern regarding immunisation, xenotransplantation, genetic modification, and advancements in fish farming that all have the potential to further enhance the utility of agriculture. Instead of celebrating these techniques for expanding agricultural opportunities, Medean fear mongers give us mysticism, fatalism, and an intense fear of utilising natural resources available to us.

This fear of Medea will ultimately have far more devastating consequences than swine flu because we rely on agriculture to supply our food. Misplaced and often mystical concerns which suggest we should shy away from intensive, mass-production techniques and new technology will have dreadful repercussions for humanity.

Greg Hollin is a freelance writer living in Leicester.

(1) See Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1990). ‘The past explains the present: emotional adaptations and the structure of ancestral environments’, Ethology and Sociobiology, 11, 375-424 for a full explanation and defence of this hypothesis.

(2) Gaia’s Evil Twin, New Scientist,  17 June 2009

(3) See What’s Happening to our view of humanity?, by Tim Black

(4) For instance see Global warming will increase world death rate, New Scientist, 28 June 2007

(5) Israel renames unkosher swine flu, BBC News, 27 April 2009

(6) Putting Mexico in an isolation unit, by Tessa Mayes

(7) Swine flu fuels concerns over intensive farming, Viva!, 30 April 2009

(8) The pigs’ revenge, Guardian, 2 May 2009

(9) Swine flu: we must address causes urgently, says Green Party leader, Green Party, 28 April 2009

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