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March 23, 2006

Vegetarians: Our counter-terror stealth force
Posted by Lorelei Kelly

One of these things is not like the other ones. One of these things just doesn't belong...
Hanta, Plague, Ebola, Crutzfeld Jakobs, Avian, Nepah, West Nile, Rift Valley, Anthrax, Norwalk, SARS, Marburg. Give up? The only one of these disease outbreaks since 1993 that does NOT come from from animals is Norwalk virus. The other ones are transboundary illnesses...not boundaries like the one between Canada and the USA...more like trans-species boundaries. These are called "zoonatic" diseases. I learned this at a Capitol Hill briefing last week given by a Vet named Dr. Lonnie King from Michigan State. Upon coming home that evening, I gave a long sigh when my pup Folly greeted me at the door. "Its you or me, babe", I said to her. A skeptical little mutt, she ran and hid from me under the coffee table.  Here she is pretending that things between us are same as always.Blog_photos_misc_006_1

Dr. King laid out his framework of the microbial "perfect storm" that is currently brewing because microbial adaptation and global changes have created a circumstance where 75% of emerging diseases come from animals. Dangerous microbes have become generalists--able to shift and drift along, cozying up to both animals and humans. These changes have broad security implications. They are due to climate and weather, host susceptibility (humans), increased travel, the breakdown of public (and animal) health, poverty, war, lack of political will and everybody's latest favorite--intent to harm through bio terrorism.

Many critics have lambasted the woo-woo crowds for claiming that poverty reduction deserves to be a counter-terrorism tactic. Several of today's terrorists went to grad school, after all. But when you consider that poverty, combined with dense packed and emiserated cities create the backdrop for the perfect storm, the security argument returns front and center.  Throw in dinner and the picture looks worse. In 2004, the world required 21 billion food animals for 6.5 billion people. China alone has gone from raising 5.2 million pigs in 1968 to 508 million today. Then consider that the trade in exotic animals is second only to illegal drugs. Millions of birds, primates and reptiles cross physical borders annually. So it's really the wildlife, domestic animals, human intersection that creates exotic diseases. The more we import them into our midst or crowd them out through over-population, the more we risk ourselves.

I am not a vegetarian. I am more like a carnivore with constant remorse. But I have been far more choosy since the 1980's when mad cow made the choice between free ranged and de-ranged meat an easy one. Having now learned about zoonatics, I can feel extra smug while waiting in line for gourmet sausages. Since dense-packed animals are disease amplifiers, free-range animals promote national security! Yet this is also simplistic. Avian flu outbreaks come from problems in production--Dr. King noted that no large scale corporate poultry producer (like KFC) has suffered an avian flue outbreak. He also said that even with the consolidation of farming into mega-farms, producers are starting to optimize production rather than simply maximize it.  Niche markets are driving this change (gourmet anti-cruelty sausages in my case).  Anti-stress measures implemented by  McDonalds for cattle has created a market bias for treating animals more humanely.

The talk made me momentarily consider a future of eating bark and roots, but Dr. King insisted that there is cause for optimism. The key is to view human health and animal health in tandem. Europe has a no anti-biotics rule for meat. Fourteen livestock diseases have been eliminated here in the USA. But the biggest challenges are the ones furthest away from the aisles of Whole Foods and Safeway.  We ultimately will need a collective sense of responsibility for global common goods like clean water, public health and animal health. Our own self-interest is becoming increasingly linked. For Americans, it comes down once again to political will. Our leaders need to put these issues on the list of national security priorities and make long term public interests a higher priority than private, commercial ones. So the real question is, when is PETA going to hire a national security director?

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