Factory Farms and Global Pandemics

By Sigal Samuel, originally published at Vox.

Some experts have hypothesized that the novel coronavirus made the jump from animals to humans in China’s wet markets, just like SARS before it. Unsurprisingly, many people are furious that the markets, which were closed in the immediate wake of the outbreak in China, have already reopened. It’s easy to point the finger at these “foreign” places and blame them for generating pandemics. But doing that ignores one crucial fact: The way people eat all around the world — including in the US — is a major risk factor for pandemics, too.

That’s because we eat a ton of meat, and the vast majority of it comes from factory farms. In these huge industrialized facilities that supply more than 90 percent of meat globally — and around 99 percent of America’s meat —animals are tightly packed together and live under harsh and unsanitary conditions.

“When we overcrowd animals by the thousands, in cramped football-field-size sheds, to lie beak to beak or snout to snout, and there’s stress crippling their immune systems, and there’s ammonia from the decomposing waste burning their lungs, and there’s a lack of fresh air and sunlight — put all these factors together and you have a perfect-storm environment for the emergence and spread of disease,“ said Michael Greger, the author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching.

To make matters worse, selection for specific genes in farmed animals (for desirable traits like large chicken breasts) has made these animals almost genetically identical. That means that a virus can easily spread from animal to animal without encountering any genetic variants that might stop it in its tracks. As it rips through a flock or herd, the virus can grow even more virulent.

Greger puts it bluntly: “If you actually want to create global pandemics, then build factory farms.”

For years, expert bodies like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been warning that most emerging infectious diseases come from animals and that our industrialized farming practices are ratcheting up the risk. “Livestock health is the weakest link in our global health chain,” noted the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in a 2013 report.

We know from past experience that farmed animals can lead to serious zoonotic diseases (those transmitted from animals to humans). Just think back to 2009, when the H1N1 swine flu circulated in pig farms in North America, then jumped to humans. That novel influenza quickly became a global pandemic, killing hundreds of thousands of people.

To be clear, scientists believe the novel coronavirus originated in wild bats, not factory farms. But it has awakened us all to the crushing effect a pandemic can have on our lives. Now that we’ve come face to face with this reality, the question is: Do we have the political and cultural will to do something major — changing the way we eat — to sharply decrease the likelihood of the next pandemic?

This article was originally published at Vox, and is partially reproduced here without the permission of the author, who is not affiliated with this website or its views.


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