As the impacts of COVID-19 continue to deepen, experts say global pandemic prevention programs should also focus on the United States, where intensive agricultural practices are breeding grounds for disease, according to a March 2021 report by WhoWhatWhy.
“The threat boils down to American excess,” Jessica Moss wrote. Over the past fifty years, meat production has increased about 260 percent, mostly in the form of so-called factory farms or confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that fulfill the US and global demand for producing cheap and plentiful animal protein. As Moss reported, 99 percent of US meat comes from factory farms where “[p]oor conditions and stress on the animals means that disease can emerge on the farms and spread through the herd at lightning speed—like COVID-19 in a nightclub.”
Factory farming operations confine animals in tight, packed indoor pens. “Overcrowding not only threatens to ‘amplify’ disease in animals, it also hastens mutation, increasing the likelihood of a jump from animals to human beings,” Moss wrote. According to Michael Greger, the author of Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching, the export of US factory farming methods has contributed to the new bird flu viruses that have developed in Asia since the 1990s. These new viruses are “tied to industrialization—the ‘Tysonization’—of our poultry production,” Greger said, referencing Tyson Foods, a US-based corporation that is one of the world’s largest processors and marketers of chicken, beef, and pork.
A July 2020 United Nations (UN) report, “Preventing the Next Pandemic: Zoonotic Diseases and How to Break the Chain of Transmission,” warned that further infectious disease outbreaks could occur if governments do not take active measures to prevent animal diseases from crossing into the human population. (A “zoonotic disease” is an illness transmitted from animal sources to humans.) The UN report specifically listed “increasing demand for animal protein” and “unsustainable agricultural intensification” as the first two of seven major human drivers of “zoonotic disease emergence.” The UN assessment recommended ten policy options to reduce the risk of future zoonotic outbreaks, including phasing out “unsustainable” agricultural processes and strengthening the health of animals involved in food production.
As WhoWhatWhy reported, many factory farm operations try to prevent disease by treating animals with antibiotics, which also facilitate fast growth. The problem, Moss wrote, is that “excessive use of these medicines helps microbes develop drug-resistant pathogens—a phenomenon known as antimicrobial resistance.” Michael Martin, a professor of epidemiology at the University of California, San Francisco and president of the organization Physicians Against Red Meat, told WhoWhatWhy, “If you wanted to find a way to promote antibiotic resistance in bacteria, you almost would not be able to find a better way to do it than concentrat[ing] animals together and feeding them antibiotics on a regular basis.” Under such conditions, the demand for meat is itself a driver of disease, Moss’s report concluded.
In December 2014 a study commissioned by the UK government estimated that 700,000 people die each year due to antibiotic-resistant microbes; and in October 2020 the World Health Organization identified antimicrobial resistance as one of the top ten threats to global health.
“It is a human failing that we predict, but we do not prepare,” Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, observed in July 2020 when she spoke at the launch of the United Nations’s “Preventing the Next Pandemic” report. To avoid future pandemics, Andersen stated, we must recognize that human health, animal health, and planetary health are “inextricably linked.”
Corporate news coverage has been limited on the links between factory farming and the risks posed by antibiotic resistance and disease transmission from animals to humans. The Project’s extensive review found no significant corporate news coverage of the UN report on zoonotic diseases.101 [A May 2021 opinion article, written by Ezra Klein and published by the New York Times, did mention the report. See Ezra Klein, “Let’s Launch a Moonshot for Meatless Meat,” New York Times, April 24, 2021.] Instead, when corporate news media, such as the New York Times, have covered factory farming, their stories have focused, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, on the role of industrialized farming in contributing to the climate crisis.
In November 2020 the Los Angeles Times published an article entitled “Want to Avoid Pandemics? Eliminate Factory Farming” by Wendy Orent, an author of books on Lyme disease and plague—though the newspaper positioned Orent’s historical overview of links between livestock farming and the transmission of animal diseases to humans as an opinion piece. Wired reported in September 2019 that antibiotic resistance in livestock poses significant threats to human health. In August 2020, Vox published “The Meat We Eat is a Pandemic Risk, Too,” by Sigal Samuel. Samuel’s report on links between factory farming and disease deserves recognition for addressing the critical question of how to build food systems that avoid the pitfalls of industrialized livestock farming.105 Vice also published a report on the topic in December 2020.
Project Censored has previously reported on threats posed by antibiotic resistance.
Jessica Moss, “The Next Pandemic May be Bred on US Farms,” WhoWhatWhy, March 11, 2021.
Student Researcher: Emily Utsig (Indian River State College)
Faculty Evaluator: Elliot D. Cohen (Indian River State College)
Illustration by Anson Stevens-Bollen.