As the new coronavirus escalated into a pandemic, it became important to pinpoint its origin. Headlines circulated at the beginning of the outbreak, pointing to “wet markets” in China as the potential source of the outbreak. While attention turned abroad, a more sinister disease incubator remains right here at home: factory farms.
The Similarities Between Wet Markets And Factory Farms
The conditions in China’s wholesale wet markets are very similar to those in factory farms here in the U.S. Factory farms, as the name implies, are essentially animal factories. These facilities cram thousands of animals into tightly packed spaces; these conditions cause elevated stress responses in animals. In the warehouse-like structures animals receive little, if any, sunlight or fresh air. Factory farms have also bred animals that are virtually genetically identical, making mass production possible of all the inputs from feed to barn construction. We raise animals for food on a modern day assembly line. But those conditions make them prime targets for the spread and incubation of disease. And when one animal in a factory farm gets sick, the pathogen can rapidly spread — killing hundreds or thousands of animals and potentially jumping to humans. This is exactly what it means when a disease is “zoonotic.”
Viral Pandemics Have Sprung From Factory Farms In The Past
This isn’t a “what if” scenario. It’s happened before — several pandemics have been incubated in factory farms. In the late 1990s, the H1N1 flu virus originated in factory farms in North Carolina. A mutated form of this North Carolina virus later popped up in a factory farm in Mexico where it spread around the world, leading to the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic. During its first year of circulation, the 2009 H1N1 flu killed between 151,700 - 575,400 people worldwide. And, in 2006 an outbreak of bird flu turned into a full-scale pandemic after originating in factory farms in China. In early April as the coronavirus was raging, a South Carolina poultry factory farm operation was forced to cull tens of thousands of birds after discovering an outbreak of bird flu. While thankfully contained to this single farm, this outbreak could have had equally dire consequences. These are just a few examples; there are plenty more. The fact that these previous outbreaks did not force us into home isolation was only a stroke of dumb luck.
The factory farm industry is acutely aware that it is playing with fire. Antibiotics, meant for the treatment of bacterial infections, are routinely used on factory farms to prevent the spread of disease. In fact, 70 percent of the total volume of medically important antibiotics in the US are sold for animal agriculture. This overuse of antibiotics has led to antibiotic resistance, where infections that were once curable develop a resistance to drugs that had previously been used to treat them — yet another pandemic in the making. The rise of drug-resistant superbugs, MRSA for example, puts our collective public health at risk and could have dire consequences in future pandemics, especially those that have bacterial complications like pneumonia. Our public health and ability to treat diseases should not be sold for corporate gain.
Family Farms Would Be A Saving Grace In A Pandemic, But Are Stomped Out By Factory Farms
The current coronavirus pandemic is demonstrating how fragile our highly consolidated food system is and how ill-equipped it is to handle emergency situations. Every day more and more meatpacking plants become ground zero for new outbreaks of coronavirus, and thousands of people are putting their lives on the line to keep these facilities functioning. Produce is being plowed under and meat is piling up in cold storage — even as unprecedented lines at food banks demonstrate the massive need for food as unemployment rates skyrocket. Corporate agriculture has created this broken system, which constantly puts us at risk of another pandemic, and yet corporate agriculture has shown that it is wholly unable to meet our needs during a pandemic.
Where are our public institutions in this time of crisis? Our food system is being held hostage by a few corporations that control everything — from piglets to politicians. With this power, the factory farm industry has mercilessly lobbied against measures that would keep us and our food safe. Demanding faster line speeds at meatpacking plants and unnecessarily increasing risks for slaughterhouse workers, opposing restrictions on antibiotic use, and even refusing to provide workers with necessary protective equipment — this is just a tiny fraction of examples of how Big Ag puts profits before the lives of everyday people.
Supporting The Farm System Reform Act Will Greatly Reduce Our Risk Of New Zoonotic Pandemics
This crisis has illustrated just how broken our food system truly is. People are angry that wet markets are already reopening, but we cannot ignore that the way we raise animals in the U.S. also places us at risk for future pandemics. As the COVID-19 outbreak forces us to significantly alter our daily lives and as the disease continues to spread, will we finally muster the political will to overhaul our food system — including banning factory farms — to decrease the likelihood of the next pandemic? Our lives depend on it. Ask your legislators to support the Farm System Reform Act today!
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