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Reducing pandemic risk begins with ending factory farming

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If these first months of COVID-19 are teaching us anything, it’s what we value most and truly can’t live without: our health. 

Like many Americans, I’m keeping watch over my three children who are now home from school for their and the community’s safety. I’m checking on my parents — one of whom has a heart condition — and my grandmother, who is completely shut inside her assisted living facility and denied any visits. I know what my top priority is: get all my loved ones out of this crisis well. Already, too many people have lost their jobs, and even their freedoms. Some have also lost loved ones.

Our economy has all but come to a halt. While some of these losses can be recovered, others — the hundreds and thousands of lives lost — cannot. 

Many of us can’t think beyond the gravity of the moment. But for me, the roots of this crisis come briefly into focus, and it is in these times that I am reminded our response to this pandemic will determine our future. This is not a drill. This pandemic is a very real manifestation of our unhealthy relationship to animals. 

In response to COVID-19, the Chinese government banned consumption of wildlife. But what if that had already been banned? Now is the time for us to survey the landscape, identify existing dangers and take action against them. When it comes to the potential risks that may lead to pandemics — such as this novel coronavirus — global leaders and scientists should consider the repercussions of factory farming.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases originate in animals, and three out of five infectious diseases are spread by animals. The World Health Organization states that “the greatest risk for zoonotic disease transmission occurs at the human-animal interface through direct or indirect human exposure to animals, their products (e.g. meat, milk, eggs…) and/or their environments.” 

When COVID-19 first broke out in the Wuhan Province in China, the CDC warned travelers to “avoid animals (alive or dead), animal markets and products that come from animals.” 

Of course, the rest of the world also raises animals for their meat and byproducts, and like the CDC, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has tied people’s health to the animals they eat: “Livestock health is the weakest link in our global health chain.”

It doesn’t take an epidemiologist to understand why the health of livestock and, in turn, our own are in peril.  

The overwhelming majority of farmed animals are kept in dark, unsanitary, overcrowded factory farms, which stresses their immune systems. Worse, they’re bred primarily for rapid growth and maximum output, not robustness, and their genetic similarity makes them especially likely to transmit disease to one another. Animal after animal, they are churned through the system, often on the same dirty floors, the same stagnant trucks, and the same slaughter lines. This system puts everyone’s health at risk.

Animal agriculture is ripe for infectious pathogens to jump from animals to humans. This we know. Recent global health threats, such as H1N1 (swine flu), Nipah virus infection and HPAI (highly pathogenic avian influenza), are all linked to farmed animals. In the late 1990s, Nipah virus, which causes respiratory and neurological illness in both pigs and humans, emerged in peninsular Malaysia from pig farms. The 2006 HPAI outbreak began in Chinese poultry farms, and in 2009, swine flu erupted in Mexico, where it evolved and circulated among farmed pigs before crossing to humans. 

Origins in animal farming aren’t all that these illnesses have in common: Each has killed people — in some cases millions, and in others, more than half of those stricken.

With billions of animals are pushed through the food system annually, it seems a matter of when, not if, a potentially devastating microbe makes the leap — unless we change our course.

It’s time we reevaluate our relationship to animals and realize its connection to our own health. 

We must see factory farming for what it is: perhaps the most likely cause of the next deadly pandemic. Once we do, we can unite, commit and build a path to a better food system for all: one that puts our health and that of our loved ones above all else.

Leah Garcés is the president of Mercy For Animals and author of “Grilled: Turning Adversaries into Allies to Change the Chicken Industry.” She lives in Decatur, Georgia.

Tags bird flu Coronavirus COVID-19 COVID19 Factory farming h1n1m swine flu Pandemic zoonotic

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