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Is the Green Party making hay of the swine flu?

Posted in BC Votes 2009 Reality Check Posted by CBC News on May 1, 2009 11:35 AM |

Mostly falseThe Green Party claim that industrial farming is the cause of mutations like swine flu is mostly false.While most people were wondering if they should shake hands with a new acquaintance, or asking if their office mate’s new tan came from Mexico, the B.C. Green Party saw a political opportunity in the uncertainty surrounding swine flu. The Green Party’s environmental platform, encourages small scale and organic farming.

In a news release, the Green Party claimed,“B.C.’s Agricultural Policies Increase Our Risk of Swine Flu.” It goes on to say, “all a pathogen like swine flu needs in order to mutate into a dangerous form is overcrowded conditions.”

We asked leader Jane Sterk to explain what the release means, she said, "we have this risk of pandemic on all kinds of different fronts, worldwide, and there is this transition from animals to humans and so when you put animals in unhealthy conditions it's more likely that those mutations and jumps will be made to humans."

We wanted to check out if that was true.

While it’s still not clear how this flu strain, H1N1, got as far as fast as it did, or how avian, swine and human flu strains mixed together to end up with H1N1 in humans, the scientists we spoke to said it could not be blamed solely on industrial farming.

Dr. David Waltner-Toews, President of Veterinarians Without Borders, and the author of a book on pandemics, The Chickens Fight Back: Pandemic Panics and Deadly Diseases That Jump from Animals to Humans, is one of the scientists we contacted.

When we asked Waltner-Toews about the Green claim that overcrowded conditions lead to mutations like the swine flu virus he said, "that's simply not true. An organism like swine flu needs a range of other things in order to mutate."

"It's not a simplistic answer that big is bad and small is good. Unfortunately these things get simplified that way. There are all kinds of good reasons for going local and organic and less disease pressure is often one of them, but you still see outbreaks in small organic farms," Waltner-Toews told us.

After our radio story aired, Waltner-Toews contacted us to amend his position on this issue. He told us while in a large industrial farm, “ [the] virus transmits more often (which you find in large groups of animals or people) then also more ‘mistakes’ in transcription will take place, and you will see more mutations.”

Waltner-Toews went on to point out, “its actual spread in human populations is by people, not animals.”

We spoke to Richard Mathias, who is a professor at the University of British Columbia School of Population and Public Health. He’s a member of the Green Party and he told us he is a supporter of small scale farming- but also told us the Green Party claim was wrong: it's the mix you find on a farm, not the size, that can pose a risk.

He says for a virus like swine flu to mutate you need pigs, people and birds all in close contact and it's the intensity of human contact, and not the size of the operation.

"Where most commonly think of influenza as most commonly changing is in areas where you have humans, pigs, and birds. And those animals have access to more people than they do on large scale industrial farms where they are very strict. "

Mathias told us on an industrial farm, who gets access to the animals is more restricted than on a small family farm. He said it's how humans and animals interact and not the size of the farm that determines whether a virus will mutate into something like the flu traveling around the world right now are all kinds of good reasons for going local and organic and less disease pressure is often one of them, but you still see outbreaks in small organic farms."

Dr. Cate Dewey, who is the Population Medicine Department Chair at the University of Guelph supported Dr. Mathias’s point about industrial farm biosecurity: she said there is likely more security in a modern industrial farm specializing in one animal than a small scale farm with mixed animals.

Dewey told us there are many combination and permutations when it comes to the conditions needed for a virus to mutate into something like the current H1N1 flu. As an example of one way, she said hogs would need to already have a pure swine flu in them, and then be exposed to avian flu and human flu, and those three all need to mix with each other and then get into the human population.

While Dewey agrees in a crowded place, like an industrial hog barn, a virus can go through quickly, the lack of access to birds and many people makes mutation less likely to happen in a big modern place.

After taking that all into consideration, we decided the Green's claim that B.C.'s Agriculture policies put us at increased risk for swine flu is mostly false.