While governments act aggressively to save lives, stop any further spread of COVID-19, and reopen their economies, let's not wait to prevent the next virus. More will come. Pandemics are picking up their pace. Thankfully, prevention is entirely possible — especially now that behavior change is on the table.
All it takes is a willingness to reconsider how we consume, trade, and treat animals. Big ask? Maybe. But everything should be on the table when hundreds of thousands of lives are at stake.
Here's the opportunity: If we stop packing animals into crowded, confined areas — to be slaughtered for protein or parts — and if we stop cutting down and endangering their habitat, we can avoid infectious,
That's right. No more lockdowns. No more makeshift morgues. No more market crashes.
It's that simple. If we want to save human lives and prevent mass casualties from COVID-like catastrophes, all we have to do is rethink and reconfigure our relationship with the animal world.
Now that social distancing is a common practice among most populations, to prevent the transmission of the virus, that's now what animals need to be able to do, too. But in nature. We've already altered 75 percent of their land habitat and two-thirds of their marine habitat. That has to stop, now.
A failure to do so — or worse, by locking them up in factory farms in Waco, Texas, and wet markets in Wuhan, China — makes it all the more likely that another deadly pathogen, which should've stayed in nature, gets passed to humans.
While presidents and governors will prefer to emphasize that the next deadly virus is controllable primarily through better detection, monitoring and quick response — which is, of course, essential, too — the only real way to truly safeguard society is to stop the industrial and factory farming of animals.
Here's how bad it's become: globally, concentrated animal feeding operations — or CAFOs — account for 72 percent of the poultry we consume, 42 percent of eggs, and 55 percent of pork production. In the United States, over 50,000 facilities classify as CAFOs, with another 250,000 industrial-scale facilities just below that classification.
How many animals are confined in these crowded and virus-friendly conditions? In the U.S., that's 9 billion chickens, 250 million turkeys, 113 million pigs, and 33 million cows — annually.
That's almost 10 billion ways to start a virus — in just one year in the U.S. alone. And we know that America's pigs, as just one example, here — most of which are farmed in industrial facilities without fresh air or sunlight — can kill thousands of Americans with a simple swine-flu virus. Over 12,000 Americans died from H1N1 in 2009 — and remember that was from factory farms in the United States.
Seemingly, no federal guidelines are governing how these animals are used and abused. And many U.S. states are trying to punish those who speak out against these cruel factory farms, which is why Animal Legal Defense Fund, and others, are providing these animals fair representation in court. It's good someone is. A failure to protect these animals results in a failure to protect our health.
Compounding these health concerns, of course, is industrial animal farming's heavy use of antibiotics, which ends up leaving humans — who consumed antibiotic-laden animal products — all the more vulnerable to bacteria during a pandemic. The result of all of this? People are more susceptible to attack from a diseased, factory-farmed animal.
And if health reasons weren't sufficient to win the hearts and minds, perhaps economics will. Industrial animal farming is the least efficient and most expensive way to provide protein to humans. It's two-three times as valuable as plant-based proteins and incredibly inefficient use of cropland, grains, and water for animal consumption (akin to have multiple middle-managers in a supply chain). Turn those crops into direct plant-protein providers for humans — a much more efficient plant-to-mouth supply chain — and we could easily, and nutritiously feed our growing population — as many as 10 billion by 2050.
That's the opportunity here. And sure, we could also talk about all of the environmental problems associated with industrial animal farming, which include toxic waste, dangerous and deadly pesticide use, and excessive and exorbitant greenhouse gas emissions that come from animal products. Beef protein's carbon footprint, for example, is 150 times as high as the same amount of plant protein. But if that hasn't yet motivated people to switch off their factory-farmed animal food, perhaps the prospect of another pandemic will.
All of this seems way too risky to continue. And until we leave this practice behind, putting animals in unhealthy, crowded and immune-compromised positions — as we are doing globally with our factory farms, wet markets, and more — will continue to put us in similarly immune-compromised positions and kill tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of people, each time these pandemics pop up. It's time to do better. It's time to save human lives. It's time to shut down industrial animal farming.
Michael Honda is a former Member of Congress Honda now serves on the board of local Silicon Valley startups and is working on the legislative campaign to repeal the Alien Enemy Act of 1798. Michael Shank is a former congressional staffer and adjunct faculty at New York University's Center for Global Affairs.