Written by Tyler Hazard
It’s no secret that the exploitation behind factory farming—in which animals are crammed, confined, commodified—is a sibling to that which brought about the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s ironic that what millions of us are doing to combat the public health crisis is not unlike our systemic mistreatment of animals in our food system: locked up, yanked away from friends and family, unable to pursue the activities that keep us happy and fulfilled.
Forcing animals into extreme and unnatural confinement increases the risk of disease spread. Intensive feedlots increase the risk and severity of E. coli infections in cattle. Massive flocks and crowded cages increase the risk of Salmonella colonization in egg-laying hens. And the removal of physical, social, and ecological barriers at live animal markets has seemingly brought us this current pandemic.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), three-quarters of new or emerging infectious diseases in humans come from non-human animals—and with the climate crisis barreling toward us, infectious disease is poised to hit harder and more frequently than ever before.
The continued industrialization of our global food system, which destroys forests and fragments habitats, means historically-distant species will be forced to interact more frequently—and humans will be exposed to new pathogens for which we are not yet prepared. Leading public health organizations like the CDC and WHO extend that concern to the climate crisis: acknowledging that as the climate intensifies, populations are forced to migrate, and resources become scarcer, ecological pathways for water-borne, food-borne, and vector-borne illnesses will become increasingly difficult to predict and manage.
This concern isn’t just theoretical, it’s a problem right now. Recent flooding in Michigan and a cyclone in India are devastating communities and complicating their COVID-19 response. Island nation leaders are fearful of the coming months, calling the combination of the economic and public health crisis and hurricane season “the perfect storm.” These increasing climate-linked disasters disrupt resource distribution and make proper disease response—like social distancing and PPE provision—incredibly difficult, if not impossible.
Addressing pandemics or the climate crisis alone is complex enough without the compounding factors of the other. Families can’t utilize public pools and beaches to escape heat waves if they’re closed due to social distancing guidelines. The elderly and immunocompromised can’t stock up on food to shelter-in-place if they’re also experiencing climate-induced food insecurity. And the same people set to feel the effects of climate extremes the most—those in lower-income and POC communities—are also disproportionately affected by public health crises like COVID-19.
Not only is animal exploitation likely responsible for our current pandemic, and other outbreaks like the 2009 swine flu, but that same exploitation is also driving the climate crisis that’s making it worse. Animal agriculture is responsible for at least 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, putting it on par with the transportation sector. It’s clear we’re snowballing the risk of future emerging disease while hurtling ourselves towards the next crisis.
But it’s not just factory farming’s contribution to climate change that’s complicating human ability to prepare and respond to pandemics. Factory farming’s reckless overuse of medically-important antibiotics risks wide-spread resistance impeding our ability to combat disease once it’s contracted. The communities surrounding factory farms—also disproportionately lower-income and POC—are exposed to higher levels of air pollution that appear to worsen COVID-19 symptoms. And the dangerous working conditions in industrial slaughterhouses have created COVID-19 hotbeds, resulting in at least 97 deaths and 26,969 infections across hundreds of plants around the country.
And the cherry on top: After all the animal exploitation, habitat mutilation, and disease propagation, when the unprecedented strikes, the system breaks even further. The industry is mass slaughtering animals by gassing and gunshot, and dumping gluts of factory farm products down the drain, all while millions of Americans go hungry.
Factory farming is far too toxic and fragile an industry to continue business as usual—or worse, be allowed to further their agenda amidst the chaos. The future of food is not intrusive, burp-capturing cow technology, as those who stand to make a trillion dollars would have you believe. You can’t fix an existential threat with duct tape.
The future of food is “scientifically-delicious” veggie burgers, fewer but more regenerative livestock systems, and less reliance on animal proteins. A food system grounded in these principles will minimize animal suffering, curtail the climate crisis, lessen class and racial injustice, and safeguard public health for current and future generations.
We have some work to do.
|Tyler Hazard is the Public Engagement Manager at Compassion in World Farming USA. He holds a B.S. in Animal Science and Psychology, and an M.S. in Animals and Public Policy from Tufts University.