The Scientific American

Science is the business right now. If the science works, the business works, and vice versa. –Craig Venter

Bird flu marinates a chicken in its own juices, a satay best avoided whatever the menu special. In such short an order better for the bistro than the barn infected birds rapidly bleed from the inside out.

What to do about this bit of bad news?

Broilers and layers are as much commodities as they are birds. As much engineering problems as living organisms. So ask research and development for a solution comes the answer.

It was, after all, by virtue of its open morphogenesis and behavioral flexibility that the chicken was first domesticated multiple times from red and grey jungle fowl distributed across South and Southeast Asia, artificially selected for the backyard, then scaled up in size and population to its factory model.

Bred for what the market and the industrial filiere demand–big breasts in six weeks tops–many a Single Comb White Leghorn now stumbles about on its spindly, underdeveloped legs. Too much weight grown too fast atop too little leg. It’s often hard to differentiate agribusiness birds on a regular day from those struck by a bird flu-induced ataxia.

It’s been a long, strange trip out from those early days in the jungle village.

In this framework influenza becomes merely an industrial glitch to be Taylorized out, rather than a intrinsic flaw stitched into the very fabric of the business model. We can just filter out the virus with a level of biosecurity, at a frequency of vaccination, that can’t possibly be implemented given the financial margins on which just-in-time intensive operations teeter.

Or else–smacking our foreheads–we can just breed in resistance. At the cost of temporarily adding to the roundaboutness of production, scotch the problem from the start.

Laurence Tiley’s group, funded by Cobb-Vantress, the chicken-breeding conglomerate, recently made an important step in that direction. The team didn’t genetically engineer flu resistance out-and-out, but was able to turn chickens into transmission dead ends. Transgenic birds could be infected but in producing short-hairpin RNA decoys that hooked influenza polymerase they could keep the virus from replicating enough to spread to the next susceptible.

Beyond the issue of the affordability of the new frankenchicken, especially for the poorest countries, influenza’s success arises in part from its capacity to outwit and outlast such silver bullets. Hypotheses tied to a lucrative model of biology are routinely mistaken for expectations about material reality, expectations are mistaken for projections, and projections for predictions.

One source of vexation is the dimensionality of the problem. There is even among mainstream scholars a dawning realization influenza is more than mere virion or infection; that it respects little of disciplinary boundaries (and business plans) in both their form and content.  Pathogens regularly use processes accumulating at one level of biocultural organization to solve problems they face at other levels, including the molecular.


In the January Scientific American Helen Branswell, a Canadian, one of the world’s best influenza reporters, offers an instance of such clarity. She addresses the role pig husbandry plays in the emergence of pandemic influenza. Much as with their poultry counterparts, how hog are organized into economic units influences the evolution of the pathogens with which they are infected.

While Branswell’s is a good review, well-aimed at a time when the problem of livestock influenza has dropped off the media radar, the article is a startling example of the conversion syndrome reporters and scholars suffer when reconciling two masters, in this case epidemiology and commerce.  Even the basic facts of the former can be colored by one’s willingness (or reluctance) to address the latter on terms outside those imposed by industry.

To start, Branswell gives us a nice round-up of pig influenza’s evolutionary history. Modern strains originated as a spillover of humanity’s 1918 H1N1 monster, steadily accumulating their own host-specific mutations over the decades that followed. Their evolution suddenly lurched forward in the 1990s when “[f]or unknown reasons, influenza viruses in pigs began to evolve at dizzying rate in North America, where enormous numbers of pigs are raised.”

The reasons are known, however, if not yet in all their detail. The emergence of multiple reassortants, new mixes and matches of genomic segments across influenza strains, went hoof-in-hoof with the reorganization of the hog industry.

Three years before the emergence of the new H1N1 in 2009, Gregory Gray’s group conducted controlled, cross-sectional tests for swine influenza among pig wranglers, veterinarians, and meat processors, finding seroprevalence greatest among the wranglers, but widespread through the commodity chain.

The team, quoted here extensively, placed their results in this context,

During the past 60 years, the US swine industry has changed in composition from primarily small herds on family farms to include immense herds in large, corporate facilities (figure 1). The US pork industry now generates $11 billion annually and employs an estimated 575,000 persons (2002 figures). Although pork production facilities today are larger, fewer, and more efficient and require fewer workers, it is estimated that, nationwide, at least 100,000 workers work in swine barns with live pigs (Dr. Liz Wagstrom, personal communication).

Iowa is the leading swine-producing state in the United States, with 9300 farms (2004 figure), raising 25 million hogs per year (a rate of 8.6 swine per human resident). Today’s large herds are maintained through the frequent introduction of young swine into swine-producing facilities. This constant influx of potentially pathogen-susceptible animals makes swine pathogen eradication difficult to achieve. Therefore, swine influenza infections, which were formerly seasonal (like human influenza infections), now have become enzootic, and swine influenza transmission occurs year-round in much of the US swine industry. Although these influenza virus infections among pigs are generally thought to be mild, they provide a constant opportunity for zoonotic influenza virus infections among humans who are occupationally exposed. Continual swine influenza transmission in US swine herds also provides the opportunity for human influenza viruses to mix with swine or avian influenza viruses and generate novel progeny viruses.

The potential for animal-to-animal transmission (reflected in the basic reproductive number, R0) among pigs in a swine confinement operation will be much greater than on a traditional farm because of the pigs’ crowding (resulting in prolonged and more frequent contact). In addition, virus-laden secretions from pigs may be more concentrated, and reductions in ventilation and sunshine exposure may prolong viral viability. Thus, a confinement operation worker’s probability of acquiring influenza virus infection may be increased, compared with that of a traditional swine worker, and certainly increased when compared with the risk among non–swine workers exposed only to human-to-human influenza activity. This risk is even greater if the virus does not kill pig hosts and if new susceptible animals are frequently introduced to the farm, sustaining transmission.

Swine workers may initiate epidemics by enhancing the mixing of viral strains that may lead to reassortment and novel progeny influenza viruses of pandemic potential. They may serve as a conduit for a novel virus to move from swine to man or from man to swine. One might envision that, once a novel virus is introduced into a densely populated swine barn, the viral loads swine workers would experience could overwhelm any partial immunity they might possess. After work, they may readily communicate that virus to their family members and neighbors.

As we’ve described here, here and here the Livestock Revolution, infiltrating the hog industry with any force only in the 1990s (see the nearby US graph), was with the North American Free Trade Agreement exported into Mexico, where H1N1 (2009) first emerged, and with cheaper transportation and more liberal trade policy across the world.

In short, again, we do know something about the swine industry and influenza. But you can smell the fear in Branswell’s article, which takes great pains to tread across a false middle ground.

On the one hand, Branswell offers some excellent detail as to the craven powerlessness the CDC, USDA, and US universities display in the course of failing to regulate the hog industry,

Farmers have historically had their pigs tested for flu, often at the diagnostic laboratories of the National Animal Health Laboratory Network (NAHLN). And companies that make flu vaccine for hogs need to know what flu threats the animals face so that they can tailor their vaccines accordingly. But the information that is gathered by the animal health sector is rarely shared with the researchers and officials who safeguard human health. In fact, in the wake of the 2009 outbreak, testing for flu on pig farms screeched to a halt.

The disconnect, the failure of the industry’s privatized self-regulation, is a corrupt one, although Branswell refuses to put it in such explicit terms,

The priorities of these labs and companies are shaped by what is best for pigs and their owners. The NAHLN labs—often housed in universities, such as the University of Minnesota and the Iowa State University—work for the farmers, their clients. Any findings, positive or not, are kept confidential, explains Montse Torremorell, who holds a chair in swine health and productivity at the University of Minnesota. “There is a lot of actual [genetic] sequencing surveillance, if you will, but the information is fed back to the people who have submitted the samples.”

Not to the virologists, epidemiologists, and phylogeographers with the scientific expertise needed to best protect  livestock and humans alike. The broad sweep of animal and human health, manifest at the system level, is confined to the myopic dictates of local commercial transactions.

The reporting system, now broken completely, bears replacement. But what CDC and the USDA are implementing in its stead is already if not stillborn then irrevocably damaged,

[The] program…cannot work without the cooperation of pork producers, who have to date been reluctant to support what many see as a bid by government to meddle in their affairs. “The pigs are owned by the farmer. And what happens to their pigs in the farmer’s business, not the government’s business, as long as the infection that is going on in those pigs is not what’s termed a program disease that is considered to be a risk to the national herd,” says Paul Sundberg, vice president for science and technology for the National Pork Board.

We’re back to the premises that produced the failures of the previous system.

To solicit cooperation from the industry, the CDC and USDA have built in anonymity. Any viruses found, including data describing on which farm or even in which county an outbreak has occurred, will be made available to a larger network of scientists only with the affected producer’s permission. Researchers will be allowed only what state the virus is found, as insulting a triviality as one can imagine.

In other words, a federal government of a major industrial country won’t allow itself the information needed to determine where an outbreak of pandemic influenza emerges within its own borders. Even if a person is subsequently infected by pigs the government would still require approval from the owner before the source pigs could be tested.

The hog industry favors the new system, obviously, particularly as the threat is, in its characterization, overblown at the expense of its farmers. According to Branswell, the National Pork Board’s Sundberg argues,

Millions of pigs come in contact with people every day, yet human cases of infection from pigs are rare. Farmers saw what happened to Arnold Van Ginkel, the Canadian producer whose herd was the first in the world to test positive for pandemic H1N1. Van Ginkel’s pigs recovered, but he had to put down the animals because no one would buy them.

We have here back-to-back syllogistic fallacies. First, as if the emergence of a pandemic influenza out of American industrial swine didn’t happen just two years ago, a highly unlikely event with nearly infinite opportunities will inevitably occur, in this case, again.

Second, the economics that brought about a pandemic virus, the next time perhaps with a deadlier phenotype, cannot be excused with an appeal to economics. The industry has survived only by long externalizing the costs of its disease, pollution, and labor violations. Governments and consumers the world over have had to pick up the check. It’s high time those costs show up on the industry’s balance sheets instead or at the very least in addition.

If Van Ginkel and his fellow contract farmers have anyone to blame, it’s the industry that produced the virus in the first place. So go sue them. Or they should help push the government into protecting their hogs first thing, including instituting a real reporting system.

That is to say, it’s not the Kafkaesque bureaucratic conundrum Branswell sketches. Perhaps more obvious in the podcast that accompanies the article, she appears to trap herself into confusing the premises underlying the very real reality of the system–how the damn thing works–for their soundness.

The state universities are land grant institutions and recipients of millions in federal funds. As is the Farm Bill-dependent agriculture sector. If it wasn’t bought and sold by agribusiness, the US government, with the rule of law and political legitimacy behind it, could force the players into a federally run and industry-subsidized surveillance system that, in the end, would restore confidence in an industry that presently responds to criticism by circumventing it.

It’s not a matter of logistics, but power, plain and simple. So let’s stop talking about it as if it’s really about something else.


This is no ad hominem attack. We make no effort here to rob Branswell or anyone else with good intentions of their diligence or expertise, from which we can learn much.

But capitalism so sets the bounds within which a free and critical inquiry is allowed, including or especially for work on threats to humanity’s very existence, that scholars and reporters, brilliant as they may be, are trapped into limited and limiting tranches of thought.

The philosopher István Mészáros sketches out the trap’s dimensions,

According to all available evidence the insurmountable problem is that the major intellectual representatives of capital’s epouch which we are concerned with, no matter how great they might be as thinkers, take for granted the fundamental practical premises of the given social order in their combined totality, as a set of deeply interconnected determinations.

Labor’s divorce from the means of production, assigning any and all collective decisions to capital’s portfolio, folding the fundamental mediation between humans and nature squarely inside capitalism’s idiosyncratic dynamics, and the power accorded the capitalist state together embody the precepts upon which intellectual work is produced or–when push comes to shove–permitted.

For Mészáros, by virtue of its dependence on capital much intellectual activity becomes a kung fu aimed at passing off an era-particular social organization as a naturalized abstraction of universal validity:

Capital’s premises are what the world has always known (and been and will be). It is based on nature’s core mechanics. It is an eternalized truth, which by virtue of its self-evident certainty must now disappear from our view. That is, its presumptions need no examination (and so no critique). In other words, we must blind ourselves and pull out our own teeth to allow the world to be as it has always been and will always remain.

That’s a bad place to start for efforts, however well-intended, aimed at characterizing influenza’s economic roots.

Could such a context get any worse? Yes, it can. When we can no longer suppress the extent to which we deceive ourselves in this way, we can rationalize our weakness by celebrating such untruths as best for the common good. Slavoj Žižek, writing in the context of the war on WikiLeaks, asks us to

Consider…the renewed popularity of Leo Strauss: the aspect of his political thought that is so relevant today is his elitist notion of democracy, the idea of the ‘necessary lie’. Elites should rule, aware of the actual state of things (the materialist logic of power), and feed the people fables to keep them happy in their blessed ignorance. For Strauss, Socrates was guilty as charged: philosophy is a threat to society. Questioning the gods and the ethos of the city undermines the citizens’ loyalty, and thus the basis of normal social life. Yet philosophy is also the highest, the worthiest, of human endeavours. The solution proposed was that philosophers keep their teachings secret, as in fact they did, passing them on by writing ‘between the lines’. The true, hidden message contained in the ‘great tradition’ of philosophy from Plato to Hobbes and Locke is that there are no gods, that morality is merely prejudice, and that society is not grounded in nature.

Setting aside what Žižek describes as liberal democracy’s compulsive disgust for its own pronouncements, the self-deception becomes a mite more difficult a path when the fables told become confused for the actual state of things.

Who can keep score when the best way to tell a lie is found in believing it? It’s a conundrum that extends to the scientist, directly employed under or on the hook to corporations or a government beholden to said corporations for funding and access.

With research increasingly proletarianized, its objectives confounded with capital’s, whatever his or her country of origin the Scientific American becomes as subjected to an artificial selection as any chicken he or she studies. A top-heavy bird with its beak snipped off. A protoplasmic commodity in tweed or white coat, clucking at every passing RFP for a little seed money.

2 Responses to “The Scientific American”

  1. Rodrick Wallace Says:

    Looks about right…

  2. […] suffers at the expense of the principle of expediency. Such contextualization often represents a threat to many of the underlying premises of […]

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