Factory Farms Produce More Than Just Your Fried Chicken

Gina Yum

We have all worn masks, socially distanced, and practiced good hygiene to deal with the fallout of COVID-19 for almost two years now fueled by the hope that COVID-19 is a rare once in a lifetime event. However, no matter how many precautions we take or how hopeful we are, we will still have to deal with new viral diseases in the future if we do not address the issue’s main contributor: factory farms. As industrial animal production has intensified, rates of development and transmission of zoonotic diseases between livestock and humans have increased. 

Zoonotic diseases are diseases transmitted through either indirect or direct contact between animals and humans. Zoonotic disease outbreaks can happen anywhere, not just in countries with poor public health infrastructure. In fact, the U.S. and Europe have had more strains of the avian flu than China, which is mainly because western nations rely heavily on factory farming for their meat supply. As humans increase contact with animals in various capacities, whether that be through increased ecotourism, disruption of wildlife, factory farming, or other activities that place humans and animals in close proximity, previously unknown human infectious diseases emerge at higher rates. COVID-19, caused by infection with a coronavirus, is a great example of this. According to the World Health Organization Africa, coronaviruses are zoonotic, and several coronaviruses are currently circulating amongst animal species. Ever since COVID-19’s zoonotic status became common knowledge, proposals of banning both wet markets and commercial use of wildlife have been dominating the mainstream. However, conversations about the potential negative consequences of factory farms fail to garner as much attention in the public eye. 

Although the link between factory farming and emerging infectious zoonotic diseases does not have a large grasp on the mainstream, it has been conversed about frequently in the public health realm for a while. In 2004, the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and the World Organisation for Animal Health jointly released information on emerging zoonotic diseases. They also pointed to intensified animal agriculture as a large potential contributor to future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases at a regional, national, and even global level. 

Factory farms provide the perfect environment for transmission of viruses between animals and humans for numerous reasons. Because animals in factory farms are cramped in close proximity, usually in unsanitary environments, once a disease takes hold of one animal, it is very easy for the disease to spread to other animals in the farm. One example is a study in the Applied and Environmental Microbiology Journal that focused directly on the Campylobacter bacteria. It found that when the Campylobacter bacteria infected a poultry flock, the bacteria flock would contaminate the food, water, and air of the closed environment, and virus transfers to external environments like surrounding human communities could occur through ventilation systems. Other zoonotic diseases can spread through similar paths. A study presented by the Public Health Report shows evidence of increased risks of virus exposure for farm workers because they frequently come in contact with animals and their feces, urine, and blood. Employees who are in contact with animals are often socioeconomically vulnerable, and once they contract a virus from their working environment, they are likely to infect others in their communities who are also very likely socioeconomically vulnerable. Factory farms provide the perfect environment for animal to human viral transmission, especially when you take into consideration that over 90% of farmed animals in the world and 99% of farmed animals in the U.S. are currently living in factory farms.

Excessive use of antibiotics is another reason why factory farms provide the perfect environment for zoonotic disease outbreaks. In order to prevent disease outbreaks in factory farms without paying too much individualized attention to their animals, meat producers often introduce obscene levels of antibiotics to all of their healthy animals instead of administering antibiotics to just their sick animals. This has led to more than 70% of medically important antibiotics in the U.S. being sold for use in animals. By pumping antibiotics into animals, widespread antibiotic resistance has taken hold of various livestock populations. This in turn makes it more difficult to treat or prevent disease infection in humans as they consume antibiotic-resistant animals.

Fighting against the harsh conditions of industrial animal agriculture is important for both animal and human welfare. We must act in the best interest of all, and as evidenced from years of research, industrialized animal agriculture has the potential to hurt our global population. If you would like to take action against intensive factory farms and other forms of harsh animal agriculture, consider local opposition to address factory farms in or around your community. Organize letter writing campaigns in your area, circulate petitions, and educate others near you about the dangers of animal agriculture. Some ways to do this include writing op-eds or organizing community gatherings, and talking to your local legislators. You can also try adopting a plant-based diet to avoid consuming the products of factory farms. If you are in the U.S, the Animal Welfare Institute offers a Compassion Index where you can sign federal action petitions and directly check how your legislators act on animal welfare related issues. By educating yourself and others on this topic, you can further animal welfare and contribute to the fight of mitigating potential public health issues.

Sources: Animal Welfare Institute Food and Drug Administration, Food and Agriculture Organization, Public Health Reports, Sentience Institute, World Health Organization Africa, World Organization for Animal Health