chicken factory farm

Headlines at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic pointed to “wet markets” in China as the source of the outbreak. But while attention turned abroad, an equally sinister disease incubator was here at home: factory farms. 

Factory farms create conditions similar to wet markets

The conditions in China’s wholesale wet markets are very similar to those in US factory farms, which, as the name implies, are essentially animal factories. These facilities cram thousands of animals into tightly packed spaces, causing the animals elevated stress, which lowers their immune levels. In the warehouse-like structures animals receive little, if any, of the heathy benefits of sun light and fresh air.

We raise animals for food on a modern day assembly line, in conditions that make them prime targets for the incubation and spread 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. That process is called “zoonotic,” and it’s widely cited as the mechanism behind COVID-19.

Factory farms also have launched viral pandemics

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.

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 themeat packing single farm, this outbreak could have had equally dire consequences.

Those are just two of many examples. The fact that the 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.

The overuse of antibiotics has led to antibiotic resistance. Infections that were once curable develop a resistance to the drugs used to treat them. The rise of drug-resistant superbugs, such as MRSA, puts our collective public health at risk.  Resistant infections could have dire consequences for 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.

COVID-19 shows the need for family farms, but factory farms have pushed them out of business

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 meat-packing plants become ground zero for new outbreaks of coronavirus, and thousands of people are putting their lives on the line, literally, to keep these facilities functioning.

Even as long lines are forming at food banks, produce is being plowed under and meat is piling up in cold storage. Corporate agriculture has created this broken system, which constantly puts us at risk of another pandemic. But corporate agriculture has shown that it is wholly unable to meet our needs during a pandemic.

manure pollution stream

—PHOTO: Tim McCabe / USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Runoff from this Maryland livestock yard may enter a nearby stream and degrade nearby water quality.

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 — these are just a few examples of how Big Ag puts profits before the lives of consumers. 

The Farm System Reform Act would greatly reduce the risk of 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. places us at risk for future pandemics. As the COVID-19 outbreak forces us to significantly alter our daily lives and to lose our financial security, will we finally muster the political will to overhaul our food system 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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