Will Animal Agriculture Accelerate Climate Change and Trigger the Next Pandemic?

The virus that could cause the next global pandemic may already be circulating among farmed animals.

4 min read
Hindi Female

There is a major threat to humanity, and it comes from the very food that we choose to eat. Whether it’s food that is served on our plates or what we see in the grocery stores, do we really think about where our food comes from?

Packages of eggs showing happy looking hens, milk cartons showing a smiling cow or a happy mother cow and her calf, and animal products that are marketed and labelled as ‘healthy’, are all the result of cruel and abusive practices that consumers are shielded from.


Animal Agriculture: Not Only an Animal Welfare Issue, Also an Environmental & Human Health Concern

Imagine spending your entire life intensively confined to a cramped space that is so small or crowded that you are unable to stretch your limbs or move around. This is the grim reality for billions of farm animals around the world.

Factory farming is a system of raising a large number of animals in extreme confinement, where the animals are treated as machines and not like living beings.

While textbooks teach us that the sole purpose of farm animals is for human consumption, the reality of what happens on the farm until the animal is on our plate is something the livestock industry would never want the public to be aware of.

We should be cognizant of the dark side of animal agriculture as it is not just an animal welfare issue but also an environmental and human health concern.

Over 88 billion farm animals on land are bred, reared, and slaughtered for food and other products globally each year. Global meat consumption has skyrocketed in the last 50 years and unless we fundamentally restructure our food system to reduce reliance on animal-based protein, the impacts are going to be catastrophic to the planet, the welfare of the animals, and to human health.


Causal Link Between Animal Agriculture, Human Health, and the Environment

The animal agriculture industry generates at least 16.5% of human-caused global greenhouse gas emissions. Animal agriculture is one of the predominant sources of methane in the environment.

Livestock account for around 32% of human-caused methane emissions, which is the main driver for global warming. Around 70% of agricultural land on the planet is used for animal agriculture and it is also one of the leading causes of deforestation, biodiversity loss, and water pollution.

The management and welfare of animals raised for food directly impact human health. The highly intensive conditions of a factory farm where tens of thousands of animals are overcrowded and confined with no natural light or stimuli, serve as incubators for disease.

Factory farms have become breeding grounds for new viruses causing zoonotic diseases that have emerged in human populations. Previously, on smaller, widely dispersed farms, it was difficult for a virus to find new hosts and to spread very quickly, as the number of animals was comparatively fewer, and farms were not as concentrated around large urban centers.

But now, the animal agriculture industry has created the ideal petri-dish, in which thousands of potential hosts are packed together, allowing more chances to replicate, more chances to mutate, and a much higher likelihood of the mutated virus’ survival.


‘Livestock Health, the Weakest Link in Global Health Chain’

For over two centuries now, farm animals have been at the heart of multiple zoonotic diseases including H5N1 avian influenza transmitted from poultry to humans and Nipah virus and H1N1 swine flu, both transmitted between pigs to humans.

These viruses have been transported to different parts of the world through the increasing trade of live animals across international borders.

Strains that were previously isolated from each other on opposite sides of the world can now reassort and ignite global pandemics that could prove fatal for millions of people and countless animals.

For years, expert bodies have been issuing warnings about the risks of zoonotic diseases emerging from animals. “Livestock health is the weakest link in our global health chain”, noted the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in a 2013 report.

Attempting to compensate for disease-promoting conditions of factory farms, the sector has also come to rely heavily on the prophylactic use of antibiotics.

This involves administering antibiotics routinely to all animals, via feed or water, to prevent infection and accelerate growth. In some countries, approximately 80% of the total consumption of medically important antibiotics is in the animal sector. Antibiotic resistance has thus become a global health challenge with around 700,000 people dying of resistant infections every year. With no action taken, the number of deaths per year could rise to 10 million deaths per year by 2050.


Way Forward With ‘One Health’ Approach

The One Health concept recognizes that the health of people is intricately connected to the health of animals and our shared environment.

The abundance of clear evidence demonstrates that an urgent mainstream shift to healthier and more sustainable farming systems is essential if we are to minimize further antimicrobial resistance, reduce the risk of zoonotic diseases, and reduce the potential for future pandemics.

Adopting plant-rich diets would use less land, produce fewer greenhouse gases, require less water, and improve animal welfare. It would additionally make available more cropland, crucial with the global population set to hit 10 billion people by 2050.

The virus that could cause the next global pandemic may already be circulating among farmed animals.

While admitting that it is unrealistic to expect the world population to cut animal products from its diet overnight, there is no better time than now to make conscientious decisions and responsible food choices for a better tomorrow.

While we cannot eliminate epidemics, we can certainly decrease the chances that the next one will result from risky industrialized factory farming practices that we currently follow.

(Sally Varma is an assistant manager, Individual Meat Reduction, Humane Society International/India. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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