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Factory Farming is Risking Future Pandemics

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

Kate Byng-Hall investigates the severity and origin of some of the most deadly pandemics in human history and why factory farming is a risky business.

Photo by Artem Beliakin

Pandemics such as Covid-19 are rare, but deadly. Most notably in the last century mankind has battled with the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919 (H1N1), which caused an estimated 50-100 million deaths worldwide, more people than were killed during the First World War.

One of the biggest questions about pathogenic tragedies such as this remains – what is their origin?

Studies conducted on the preserved tissue of Spanish Flu victims from 1918 suggest that the deadly strain of influenza was most likely of avian origin. Birds such as chickens and turkeys are susceptible to H1N1/Influenza A (Spanish flu).

Virus genes can mutate faster in birds than any other animals, so avian diseases can become deadly fairly quickly before being transmitted to humans, as may have been the case in 1918.

Once they have infected humans, they can become pandemics by being transmitted from human-to-human.

Just like the Spanish Flu, other viruses such as Covid-19, Swine Flu, HIV, SARS, Bird Flu and Measles are also, all of animal orign. With this it is undeniable that the cultivation of livestock has contributed to illness both to animals and humans since the practice started.

The question now is, what is to be done now?

Covid-19’s Animal Origin

It’s widely believed that Huanan Market, a ‘wet’, or live animal market in Wuhan, China, was the location where Covid-19 was first passed to humans. Of the first 41 human cases of coronavirus reported in China, 27 of them were believed to have come into contact with the market’s produce shortly before their diagnosis.

Many scientists have concluded that bats are the creatures most likely to have initially passed Covid-19 onto humans, as the coronavirus strain they carry has a 96% similarity to the current pandemic among humans, but this would have been done through intermediary species.

Pangolins, scaled creatures comparable in appearance to armadillos, have been seen to carry a coronavirus over 90% similar to Covid-19, so they are a credible intermediary, although it hasn’t been confirmed. It’s possible that this is how Covid-19 first came into contact with humans.

Dr Michelle Baker, an immunologist at CSIRO, has said that “these wet markets have been identified as an issue because you do have species interacting,” and that the pandemic is “an opportunity to highlight the dangers of them and an opportunity to clamp down on them.”

Disease in Factory Farming

Live animal markets are not the only avenue through which diseases can be transmitted from animals to humans. Factory farms are a potential breeding ground for viruses which can be transmitted to humans through contact with or consumption of the livestock produced in them, as eating animals which were diseased can lead to human consumers contracting the illnesses themselves.

Poultry farms are of particular concern, with spatial epidemiologist Marius Gilbert of the Université Libre de Bruxelles in Belgium stating that “there is clearly a link between the emergence of highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses and intensified poultry production systems”.

In commercial poultry production, the animals are bred to have very similar genetic codes in order to cultivate birds with ideal characteristics for human consumption. However, this means that viruses spread between the animals very rapidly because there are no genetic mutations to slow them down.

Welfare of Animals is Worrying

The danger of this is proven through avian influenza, a zoonotic disease whose spread has been exacerbated by intensive poultry production on factory farms.

Poultry is not the only form of livestock which can pose a threat to human health. Swine flu, the much-feared pandemic of 2009-10, is likely to have originated in factory farms housing pigs in Mexico and the U.S., the unsanitary and overcrowded conditions of which accelerated the spread of the disease among the livestock before being transmitted to humans.

Factory farming can also contribute to the spread of dangerous bacteria such as E.coli and salmonella, leading to 76 million Americans contracting foodborne illnesses annually, and thousands dying from such ailments.

It can’t be forgotten that life for many animals on factory farms is horrific and inhumane. Pigs suffer extreme physical and psychological trauma and deprivation before being slaughtered, with an estimated 80% of pig herds in the UK suffering from pneumonia.

1.7 million birds a year die before they even reach the abattoir, from heart failure, dislocation of the hips, and having their skulls crushed when the drawers on the transporter are closed. Enforcing tighter restrictions on this form of farming would undoubtedly protect the welfare of the world’s livestock as well as its people.

Scientific Warning

Dan Kirby, spokesperson for Pause the System has said

“The science is clear, unless we act now on climate breakdown and end factory farming, disastrous pandemics will be commonplace.”

The propensity that these intensive farms hold for breeding life-threatening diseases cannot be disregarded. The coronavirus pandemic should be enough for agricultural authorities the world over to tighten controls on factory farming in order to limit threats to both humans and animals.

To protect yourself and others against Covid-19, continue to follow NHS and government guidelines.


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