Factory Farms: A Hotspot for Emerging Pandemics

Factory Farms: A Hotspot for Emerging Pandemics

Last week, the World Health Organization elected Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus as its next Director General. Amid his controversial campaign, I coauthored an open letter to the next Director General to prioritize factory farming, an eminent threat to global health. This letter, signed by over 200 experts in relevant fields, attracted a large degree of media attention in the New York Times, Lancet, Guardian, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. The announcement of this letter on Twitter was the top trending post on nearly all relevant hashtags for the World Health Assembly, even during its busiest day.

Factory farming, in its simplest definition, is the intense, large-scale confinement of animals in order to produce meat. The vast majority of meat consumed in the United States, and increasingly in Low-Income Countries, is produced in this manner. Perhaps the most terrifying risks of factory farms are to global health security, which manifest themselves in two major ways.

First, factory farms are among the largest contributors to antibiotic resistance because the vast majority of antibiotics used worldwide are used within them, often without any sensible restrictions or forethought as to the long-term risks this poses. Second, factory farms and the cultivation of livestock often requires deforestation, which places humans into closer contact with animals in the wild that may transmit emerging diseases.

In the United States and European Union, 75% of all antibiotics are used in agriculture. The sheer quantity of antibiotics used is expected to grow by 70% by 2030, especially in low-income countries where factory farming is beginning to take hold. While these antibiotics could be used sensibly to treat infections and prevent unnecessary suffering in farm animals, they are not. Farm animals are routinely given low level doses of antibiotics as a preventative measure and in an attempt to promote their growth. Evidence shows that this widespread approach achieves neither goal.

Since factory farms also routinely pollute waterways with animal waste - without any clean up - antibiotic-resistant bacteria are also quickly and efficiently spread into waterways and the meat that consumers eat. These factors make factory farms the perfect breeding ground for antibiotic resistance, a threat that currently kills 700,000 people per year and could kill up to 9.5 million people per year by 2050. While scientists can’t currently quantify the precise morbidity and mortality burden attributable to factory farming, the sheer scale of antibiotic use on factory farms and the egregious practices associated with them suggest that this is a potentially high-impact target to focus on.

Apart from antibiotic resistance, factory farming presents an entirely separate risk to pandemics by increasing the likelihood of emerging zoonotic diseases. The primary driver is deforestation. Raising meat for consumption is an incredibly inefficient way to produce calories compared to fruits, vegetables, and grains, meaning that forests must be chopped down to grow animal feed and to supply grazing land. For example, the World Bank estimates that between 1970 and 2004, 91% of cleared land in the Amazon was for cattle ranching. As this deforestation routinely puts humans into contact with wild animals, diseases can leap between species. Although deforestation did not cause the emergence of Ebola or HIV/AIDS, the fact that both of these major diseases emerged through animal transmission suggests that this is an important vector to focus on. Several of the most high-profile examples of emerging diseases have come from contact with animals, including swine flu, mad cow disease, and avian influenza.

Separate from the risks imposed by deforestation, putting farm workers in contact with animals should also warrant a high degree of concern. Meat corporations give these workers minimal training, safety precautions, or medical care, while also subjecting them to egregious exploitation and abuse at the hands of meat corporations. The fact that these workers are intentionally recruited from racial minorities and politically marginalized populations means that diseases emerging from factory farms will harm those who are worst-off and likely go unnoticed and unreported in the early days of a pandemic, when a quick response is critical.

Factory farming imperils us all. The response to this threat must come from the highest levels of the World Health Organization. The WHO has already made progress, including policy recommendations on the use of antibiotics in agriculture in its Global Action Plan on Antibiotic Resistance. But it must go further.

The risks posed by factory farming are not ones that can be mitigated solely through regulation, although this is certainly an important step. Just as WHO has bravely confronted tobacco and soda companies, it must seek to reduce the growth of factory farming as an industry and discourage high rates of meat consumption. Organizations seeking to reduce the risk of pandemics should recognize the critical role that this industry plays and place it firmly at the forefront of their policy agenda.