Fighting Factory Farms Key to Reducing Future Pandemic Risk

Annie Hornish

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Most of the animal-based protein produced in the United States comes from factory farms: large-scale industrial production facilities that are not only cruel to animals and bad for the environment, but have a track record of mistreating workers. Most recently, several COVID-19 super-spreader events involved employees at slaughterhouses.

Factory farms offer the ideal setting to spark a viral pandemic. Intensive confinement systems create incredibly stressful conditions that allow diseases to spread easily. The cruelty is painful to contemplate: egg-laying hens packed in filthy cages that are so small, they cannot stretch their wings; breeding pigs confined in gestation crates so narrow that they cannot even turn around. This extreme frustration of natural behaviors amounts to medieval torture techniques, but at a nightmarish scale, with billions and billions suffering.

A September 2020 white paper from Humane Society International (HSI) discusses the serious public health risk posed by factory farms. The paper concludes, in part, that: “COVID-19 has had a major impact on public health, but a more virulent virus with the same rate of infectivity could be much more devastating. The global response to COVID-19 has demonstrated that a concerted effort among countries can reduce the impact of a public health emergency. A much greater and more urgent emphasis should be focused on the prevention of future pandemics by fundamentally restructuring our food system to reduce reliance on animal-based protein.” Some of HSI’s policy recommendations include phasing out intensive confinement practices seen in factory farms and promoting production of plant-based foods.

Similarly, a 2008 study on industrial farm animal production by the Pew Charitable Trusts and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that “…by most measures, confined animal production systems in common use today fall short of current ethical and societal standards” and that factory farms “…pose a substantial environmental problem for air quality, surface and subsurface water quality, and the health of workers, neighboring residents, and the general public.”

Public desire for “clean meat” is strong, and the market is responding, with mainstream food chains now carrying plant-based meats and plant-based dairy. Even fast-food chains are increasingly offering plant-based meats.

Going vegetarian is a powerful way to fight factory farms and reduce risk of future pandemics. As the saying goes, “you are what you eat,” and eating with awareness -- with attention to reducing animals’ suffering, with attention to reducing negative environmental impacts, and with attention to fighting farmworker abuses --  is as much spiritually nourishing as it is physically nourishing.

Annie Hornish is Connecticut State Director for The Humane Society of the United States and a supporting member of Sierra Club.