As the world continues to face an unprecedented global pandemic, recognizing the connection between pandemics and factory farming may be helpful in reducing their future spread.
The current COVID-19 outbreak is caused by a coronavirus, one of a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases. Like the swine flu or bird flu, they are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between animals and people. In fact, viruses affecting humans most often originate in nonhuman animals. Scientists believe that the current outbreak originated in bats and was passed on to humans through an open-air seafood and meat markets, also known as “wet markets” in China.
The growth of these wet markets is correlated with a growth in factory farming. As industrial animal agriculture production expands and takes up more land, it places pressure on wild animal markets to source from deeper in forests, which in turn increases the likelihood of human contact with new diseases. These wild animals can carry zoonoses such as COVID-19. A number of other pandemic diseases have been linked to industrial animal agriculture including SARS, Ebola, bird flu, and swine flu.
These zoonotic diseases are not only found in wild animals. Billions of animals in factory farms are densely housed in concentrated animal feeding operations. These cramped conditions allow viruses to spread easily among them. Because these animals are selectively bred to have desirable traits like lean meat, these animals are genetically almost identical. When a virus comes into contact with these closely housed animals, it doesn’t encounter any genetic variation in the animals that can prevent it from spreading. This, paired with poor health and living conditions of animals in factory farms, can easily increase the virulence and propagation of deadly viruses. Diseases originating in wild and domestic animals currently kill about two million people each year.
Jose Mendez is the San Francisco Director of the Factory Farming Awareness Coalition.