Experts agree our colossal domestic and foreign wildlife markets put humans at risk of pandemics. Yet exotic wildlife is not the only concern. Industrialized animal operations have spread foodborne pandemics since the early 1900s to the present. Paul Shapiro stated in “One Root Cause of Pandemics Few People Think About” that the present pandemic, “may be just a dress rehearsal for an even more serious pandemic” in our overcrowded factory farms. These animal factories are the source of most of the meat we eat. The author of “Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching” deemed them a breeding ground for outbreaks. “If you actually want to create global pandemics,” he warns, “then build factory farms.”
Disease is omnipresent on factory farms. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 48 million Americans are sickened by foodborne illnesses yearly, 3,000 resulting in death. Seventy-five percent are caused by zoonotic pathogens, diseases transmitted between animals and humans. Experts agree that the cramped, stressful and unhygienic animal factories, antibiotic overuse, and synthetic habitats and feed, are inextricably linked to zoonotic pandemics. From 2019-20 the CDC has reported outbreaks for salmonella and E. coli in ground meat, MRSA in pigs, and campylobacter in chicken.
Since the 1980s animal-to-table operations have monopolized into a handful of corporations that kill 25 million animals daily. This unchecked “get big or get out” taxpayer-funded corporate power has streamlined butchering to create killing lines so fast that some animals are boiled, beaten and skinned alive, dying “piece by piece,” as a worker told the Washington Post. Employees work in close proximity to these animals, allowing easy transmission of infections. Sickened workers in turn infect co-workers, resulting in labor shortages and bottlenecking production as employees call in sick. Slower lines mean fewer animals can be butchered; undelivered animals have “nowhere to go but a mass grave.” Tight margins compel factory farms to propagate fewer animals and feed crops, triggering further shortages. As one animal expert said, “Big is Fragile.”
What can be done? Until the public demands change, animal factories will not capitulate. We need to stop producing animals as widgets and instead raise them as we did in the recent past; on small farms with pasture. This will decrease disease spread and hopefully encourage humane treatment of these sentient beings. Think this is impossible? We’re already doing it. In 2009 the USDA implemented the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative in response to a growing interest in locally grown food. This initiative creates a grant program that helps fund the establishment of new local farms throughout the country. It also incorporates farm-to-farm mobile slaughter units, which eliminate the extremely inhumane process of transporting terrified animals long-distance to corporate slaughterhouses without food, water, or rest, for up to 28 hours at a time.
Next, we must diversify our protein. We have imprisoned farm animals and occupied the habitats of thousands of other species, delivering pandemics right to our backyards. Surely we can eat fewer animals and choose plant-based alternatives. For meat lovers, technology has created a new food by fusing engineered bovine muscle and endothelial cells. The product has the texture and taste of real meat without the expense, disease propagation, cruelty and habitat destruction of the animal industry. Echoing Winston Churchill in 1931: “Fifty years hence, we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”
This is our nation; our planet. We need to stand up to industrial farming, curtail our consumption of animals, support food sciences, expand localized farming and halt our encroachment on wild places. Nature is sending a message and we are called to respond.
Nancy Oliver Flores