Covid-19: How factory farming fuels pandemics
As the world waged war with the Coronavirus, our invisible enemy, billions of lives were turned upside down. It forced us to hunker down. To refocus our priorities. To fear for our family and friends. To practice enforced isolation from our loved ones. To feel for those afflicted with this awful virus. To mourn those taken from us. And to celebrate the health service professionals and other key workers who have put themselves at risk to tend to the sick and safeguard us all.
A crisis beyond compare, Covid-19 has caused us to question how our lives might now change. How we might live in a post-Covid future. Would things ever be the same? For the future of our children, should they be? What needs to be different to stop something so terrible happening again?
People and Animals, We’re in it Together
Unimaginable is the word most of us might have used just months before, at the thought that a distant virus originating in bats and traced to a live animal market in Wuhan, China, could be so world changing. To their credit, Chinese authorities moved quickly once Coronavirus had been identified, to shut down both the affected market and the illegal trade in wildlife. Nearly 20,000 wildlife farms across China raising species including peacocks, civet cats, porcupines, ostriches, wild geese and boar were also shut down.
The world was caught seemingly unawares.
Yet, in truth, the warning signs have been there for a while; and have a lot to say about the future of food, farming and our relationship with animals.
Pandemic on a Plate
Although bats are thought to be the original source, the Wuhan coronavirus most likely jumped to humans via an intermediary. It is the latest example of an infection that made the leap from animals into humans – and when infections do this, they can be particularly deadly. Three out of four new or emerging infectious diseases in people come from animals, including HIV, Ebola, influenza, MERS and SARS.
Whilst the emergence of Covid-19 has been linked to eating wildlife, it shows strong parallels with other viruses which have emerged from a different route – industrial farming – such as highly pathogenic strains of Avian Influenza and Swine Flu.
Both these previous diseases – originating in chickens and pigs – have been devastating; believed to come from keeping living, breathing, sentient creatures in the most unnatural conditions – caged, crammed and confined on intensive farms.
Intensive farm buildings are a serious public health risk. They provide the perfect breeding ground for disease. A hothouse for new and more dangerous strains of disease. Keeping too many animals in too small a space, often in darkened, filthy and crowded conditions, provides a virus like Avian Influenza the conditions it needs to spread very rapidly. As it goes through the flock replicating madly, differences can occur in the virus’ DNA, causing new, more deadly strains to emerge.
Highly pathogenic bird flu strains, such as the H5N1 virus, emerged during a time of massive expansion of the poultry industry in the Far East. Spreading rapidly, by August 2011, it had infected 564 people, of whom 330 died – a fatality rate of almost 59 per cent.
Thankfully, H5N1 is not easily transmitted between people. However, scientists have shown that just a few mutations would allow H5N1 to become as infectious as seasonal flu. An editorial in the New Scientist described the risk of a pandemic as ‘fact, not fiction’.
The fact that pigs, humans and birds can exchange flu viruses or elements of viruses, raises the nightmare prospect of a highly contagious and lethal flu strain which that starts out in animals transferring to people.
To an extent, it already has: with Swine flu.
I remember visiting the mountain plateau town of La Gloria in south-east Mexico, known as ‘ground zero’ for Swine flu. I remember the eerie sense of gloom on the streets, previously a cheerful place where children played volleyball on dusty roads and streets decorated with bunting. Those streets lay just five miles from one of the biggest concentrations of pig farms in the world. I remember driving past more than a dozen pig farms scattered across the desert plain outside the town. More than a million pigs a year are raised in the area. I spent several days there and didn’t see a single one. They were all locked inside. Out of sight. Reared in cramped, concrete pens, their muck flushed into open air lagoons. The smell was overwhelming. The word ‘farm’ barely seemed to apply here. Each one looked like a cluster of low aircraft hangars or military installations. The steel, concrete and electrified boundary fences kept us out. Articulated lorries trundled in and out, ferrying huge quantities of feed. When the finished product, fattened pigs, were taken for loaded into trucks for slaughter, it might well have been one of the few moments of their lives where the animals got to see to the sun.
In 2009, La Gloria became the epicentre of one of the biggest-ever health crises linked to factory farming.
Made up of a mix of genetic material from two different swine influenza viruses as well as from human and avian strains of flu, Swine flu was a warning to the world.
It spread far more quickly than anyone anticipated: within a week, ten countries were affected; within months, 180 countries had been hit. The 2009 Swine flu pandemic went on to kill between 151,700 and 575,400 people worldwide.
When the immediate panic subsided, most people stopped worrying about catching swine flu, just as they stopped worrying about contracting bird flu.
Surely, it would be a unforgivable tragedy if we do the same thing with Covid-19, thereby failing to learn the lessons and act upon them.
New and devastating disease outbreaks have become known as ‘black swan’ events, a metaphor for surprise catastrophes. Coronavirus has been a black swan event beyond compare; a real life nightmare.
To avoid nightmares being repeated in the future, it is important to identify likely sources of black swan events.
One of those is factory farming. Factory farming is not only the biggest cause of animal cruelty on the planet, it is also a major driver of wildlife declines worldwide. The two go hand-in-hand.
At the same time, factory farming fuels the global appetite for more meat and other animal products, meaning that more forests are cleared for farmland, encroaching on wild lands and their novel viruses.
Food production already covers nearly half the useable land surface of the planet, more than four-fifths of that being devoted to producing meat and dairy. As the global hunger for animal products increases, so agriculture encroaches further into the world’s remaining wildlands. Wilderness areas. Rainforests. Savannah. Rich in wildlife and oxygen-giving woodlands.
As humanity pushes on into the natural world, felling tropical rainforests and erasing pristine habitats, so we come into contact with new species of life, including viruses. Heightening the risk of new Black Swan events.
As David Quammen, author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Pandemic, wrote in the New York Times, “We invade tropical forests and other wild landscapes, which harbour so many species of animals and plants — and within those creatures, so many unknown viruses. We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.”
A big reason for this encroachment on nature is the rising demand for cheap protein from animals, fuelling agricultural expansion and pushing ever deeper into marginal lands and wild spaces.
Grazing animals, especially cattle, are blamed for destruction of the rainforest and the march of the agricultural frontier, yet, what I discovered in Brazil is that global demand for factory farmed meat is the real driver.
Longstanding cattle pastures on the savannah plains of Brazil’s agricultural interior are being ploughed up for feed crops like soya. The demand pushes up land prices, meaning cattle farmers can afford to buy more land elsewhere, deeper in the forest. Scientists call this a ‘land-use cascade’. It accelerates rainforest destruction.
Much of the world’s arable land is now shared with factory farmed animals. Forty per cent of our entire grain harvest is fed to industrially reared animals caged. Globally, that’s equivalent to an area of land the size of the entire European Union or half the United States of America. Growing food – renamed ‘feed’ – using heavy applications of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Wiping away nature. Shaking free their viruses in search of new hosts.
Yet, because so much of the world’s harvest is squandered in this way – feeding it to factory farmed animals who then waste the majority of the food value in conversion to ‘cheap’ meat, milk and eggs – we encroach on more forests far away.
Which brings us into contact with a new array of wild animals, plants and viruses.
Whilst loading the dice of sustainability against us for tomorrow, we are literally encroaching on our future. In this way, we put ourselves at risk of a fresh pandemic every day.
The Coronavirus tragedy, together with Avian flu and Swine flu a decade earlier, have shown how treating animals as mere commodities – be they domesticated or wild – is like playing Russian Roulette with peoples’ health.
What I’ve come to see is that a key component of reducing the risk of devastating diseases tomorrow is to reconnect with our humanity for animals today. To ensure that the sentience of animals – their ability to feel pain, to suffer, and to experience a sense of joy if we let them – whether wild or farmed, lies at the heart of future disease control strategies. One health, one welfare.
The coronavirus epidemic is not a warning, but a potent demonstration of what is going wrong, what life could become. Where our global lifestyle seemed invincible, suddenly it seems vulnerable. fragile. Interdependent.
No one could have wanted such a terrible pandemic, claiming so many human lives and devastating countless others. The scale of the human tragedy has been immense.
Yet, out of this darkest cloud of contemporary history, could come a silver lining that may just save us from worst things to come. Living through the previously unimaginable could provide people and policy makers with the experience to rethink how to tackle problems a new.
What has been extraordinary about the response to Covid-19 has been how far and how fast governments have moved to protect people and their health, introducing life-changing measures across the board in moves normally only associated with wartime.
It shows how quickly changes can be made. In the face of an imminent threat, leaders have stepped up. Society has gone into battle with a virus, our invisible enemy.
Yet, the action of governments worldwide on Covid-19 stands in stark contrast to efforts on factory farming, climate change and the collapse of nature.
Make no mistake, scientific evidence is clear that the level of threat posed by unsustainable farming practices and climate breakdown could plunge the world into unimaginable crisis.
However, few leaders of any persuasion have yet been willing to do what it takes. Few want to take action now, on their watch, to prevent crises on someone else’s. As one politician said of climate change, ‘I know what to do, I just don’t know how to get re-elected’. Businesses locked into quarterly or annual returns, obligated to show immediate profit for shareholders, are unwilling to turn their world upside down and risk their business well, until the world turns upside down. And so, we are locked into a circle of short-term thinking. Where anything other than incremental change, a minor evolution of the status quo, seems radical and unrealistic.
Yet, the Coronavirus pandemic has shown how fragile society really is; that for the sake of a decent tomorrow, appropriate measures are needed today.
Without urgent action to address the unsustainability of our food system, the climate crisis and the collapse of nature, we could find ourselves again fighting an ‘invisible enemy’, only this time, in a war without end.
Talking at Compassion in World Farming’s ‘Extinction’ conference in 2017, former European Commission director-general for the environment, Karl Falkenberg, pointed out how society rarely makes major changes without a bloody nose. Talking about food, climate and the environment, Falkenberg said, “Why with all the knowledge that we have, why can we still not get the right governance decisions? Why do we continuously do the wrong things that we know are wrong until the next disaster hits us? We do need bloody noses before collectively we start modifying systems.”
And boy, with Covid-19, did we get a one hell of a bloody nose.
Whereas, with climate change, there is ‘still’ a decade or so to solve it, that bloody nose hasn’t kicked in yet. The same can be said for the collapse in nature, the decline in pollinating insects, bees and the like. As for the world’s oceans, they still have fish in them. Well, for another two to three decades anyway. And saving the world’s soils feels like a lifetime away before society hits the buffers. Let alone future pandemics from factory farming animals in conditions that provide the perfect breeding ground for disease.
As Falkenberg put it, “Collectively, we are living beyond the supporting capability of this blue planet. And we are doing it while we know that this is the only planet we have. It is a fundamental contradiction. It’s short termism in the worst form we can imagine.”
With Covid-19, the immediacy of the ‘attack’ from the invisible enemy – mounting death tolls and the prospect of much more – meant political leaders across the world did for the common good, things previously unimaginable. The effects were immediate. It wasn’t something politicians could put off for another day.
Perhaps the world’s response to Covid-19 will break the mould, establish a new way of looking at threats just over the immediate horizon. Perhaps, as a global society, we will now find it within ourselves to take the future more seriously. The response to Covid-19 has arguably set the template for what could be done to stave off other pressing threats facing society, including factory farming.
Whilst this pandemic has been linked to wildlife caught up in wet markets for food, the next one could come from an incarcerated pig or chicken. From animals ‘grown’ like mere commodities and fed on the fruits of deforestation. Either way, factory farms could be making victims of us all. Never before has there been a more potent example of how the health of animals and people are so closely interlinked. In the war against invisible enemies, protecting people means protecting animals too.