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When animals on farms are so densely concentrated, pathogens are able to spread more easily, making factory farms a hotspot for zoonotic diseases.
Though scientists are now investigating the possibility that COVID-19 originated in a lab in Wuhan, China, the initial theory accepted by scientists and civilians alike was that the virus was first found in a wildlife market, where animals had been kept in unhygienic conditions. This assumption was not too far fetched. We know that 75% of all diseases found in humans are zoonotic, meaning they are communicable from animals to humans. With deadly diseases, such as the swine flu and avian flu, originating in animals, zoonotic diseases are proven to be lethal and on the rise.
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Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the “wet markets'' found in many Asian countries are frowned upon by Americans as unsanitary and disease-ridden. While “dry markets” sell non-perishable goods, “wet markets” sell fresh produce and sometimes live animals, including rare breeds and animals caught from the wild. Markets that sell such animals are a danger to public health conditions, since wildlife can carry unpredictable diseases that are often able to become zoonotic. But what many fail to realize is that American factory farms mirror the conditions of wet markets in a multitude of ways.
First of all, factory farms cram animals into facilities in order to maximize productivity, placing emphasis upon “high stocking density.” When animals live in such tightly packed spaces, “unique ecosystems” that facilitate the evolution and transmission of viruses are created. This means that, when animals on farms are so densely concentrated, pathogens are able to spread more easily, making factory farms a hotspot for zoonotic diseases.
In addition to the crowdedness present on factory farms, animals are forced to deal with difficult living conditions including insurmountable levels of stress, a lack of access to food and fresh air, the inability to comfortably sleep, and an overall absence of sanitation. This compromises the immune systems of the animals, making them more vulnerable to infectious diseases that they may have been able to fight off otherwise.
Furthermore, when farms are built in areas that were previously inhabited by wildlife, virus spillover occurs. This happens because, as farms expand, wild and domestic species are brought within close proximity of one another, making it easy for diseases to spread from the wildlife population to domesticated animals. Through this process, diseases are able to evolve and adapt, growing their resilience and making them able to eventually infect humans.
For the aforementioned reasons, it is evident that factory farms are a threat to public health and have the potential to be the source of the next global pandemic—which may come sooner than we think. In fact, scientists estimate that, from here on out, there will be a pandemic at least every five years; factory farm expansion only heightens this risk. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations even noted, “Livestock health is the weakest link in our global health chain.”
Overall, the unsanitary and crowded conditions on factory farms make the meat industry a breeding ground for viruses. With the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic still lingering, another outbreak of that magnitude would be devastating. However, we can help reduce this risk by boycotting meat, poultry, and dairy brands. By minimizing the demand for factory-farmed products, we are also minimizing the incentive for companies to continue to raise animals under such dangerous conditions.
Kacey Fifield is an FFAC High School Mentee.