If you've been game enough to peek at the news recently, you'll have noticed no shortage of apocalyptic headlines. Deadly floods, war, a relentless global pandemic that's been shunted from headlines but still haunts hospitals - it's grim.
And now this: Japanese encephalitis virus (JEV), a virus that can cause fever, headaches, vomiting, seizures and death and one which has already claimed the lives of two Aussies.
In early March, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud was quick to warn Australians of the small but real risk of Japanese encephalitis, offering tips for avoiding infection from this mosquito-borne disease. But why is the agriculture minister commenting on a bug-borne illness anyhow? Have we suddenly begun the live export of mozzies because there's a buck to be made from their flesh?
Nope. He's involved because, although heavy rainfall has increased mosquito numbers, this is less about our unwelcome barbecue guests and more about biosecurity - specifically, the biosecurity around Australia's 2.4 million pigs.
See, while mosquitoes make for a convenient villain in this story, hated as they are, they are really only a vector. They wouldn't be spreading this potentially fatal illness were it not for piggeries - AKA any filthy, crowded place where sensitive pigs (whose cognitive abilities surpass dogs') are crammed together to languish, abused (and, evidently, bitten), before their horrific deaths at just a fraction of their natural life expectancies.
It may surprise some bacon lovers to learn that 90 per cent of pigs bred for their flesh in Australia are raised on factory farms. While you might oxymoronically label yourself an "ethical meat-eater", the reality is if you've ever eaten a pork chop or bacon strip, you've financially supported factory farming.
We sadly live in a country where we're advised to slather ourselves in DEET, lest we be bitten by mosquitoes fat with a pig-amplified virus while we barbecue our pork chops.
So far, JEV has been detected in more than 20 piggeries across four states, and, while JEV can also be found in horses, it's only pigs (and birds) who are bitten by mosquitoes who then share the disease with humans. At this stage, Victoria has confirmed seven cases, New South Wales five, South Australia four, and Queensland one.
When COVID-19 was first detected in Australia and around the world, people couldn't move quickly enough to condemn live-animal (AKA "wet") markets, like the one in Wuhan, China, where the novel coronavirus is believed to have originated. While governments advised people on ways to avoid catching COVID-19, the global community quite sensibly called on China to close such establishments where - like piggeries - the confinement of large numbers of live animals "amplifies" disease risk.
Of course, going to one of the main sources of a problem is rational - especially when that problem is created by humans (we do, after all, forcibly inseminate pigs to make more pigs), cruel and unnecessary (we no more need pig flesh in our diet than we need dog flesh). So why aren't we calling for the closure of piggeries in the wake of JEV outbreaks?
The answer, of course, is a combination of money and speciesism. It's easy to scapegoat "pests" such as mosquitoes, whom we haven't yet found a way to exploit for profit (I'm sure we would if we could), while ignoring the fact that if it weren't for our weird obsession with dead pigs' flesh, we wouldn't be seeing so many cases of yet another virus.
We sadly live in a country where we're advised to slather ourselves in DEET, lest we be bitten by mosquitoes fat with a pig-amplified virus while we barbecue our pork chops. It's lunacy, but we also have some control - demand drives supply, and if we simply don't buy hunks of dead pig, we can eventually move to a safer food system for all.
Littleproud claims, "Pig products are still safe. You can still go and enjoy Australian pork." But can you? Sadly, yes. Should you? No. Well, not if you want to reduce harm, climate change risk and the likelihood of even more zoonotic disease outbreaks.
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