By Matt Bershadker
Today’s industrial farms raise massive numbers of pigs, chickens, turkeys, and cows in intensive confinement, mired in their own waste and lacking enough space to simply move about freely. These farms also breed animals for extreme growth and production rates that further endanger their health and welfare. Conditions like these have torturous consequences including lameness, skeletal disorders, and painful skin lesions. Yet, they are still standard operating procedure for the few large companies that control how most farm animals are raised and slaughtered in this country.
As a consequence of the pandemic, this cruel machine is now starting to crumble under the weight of its callous greed, layering even more tragedy on top of longstanding suffering. Slaughterhouses owned by enormous meat companies are shutting down as they become COVID-19 hotspots, their employees becoming sick in record numbers due to wholly inadequate worker protections.
Meanwhile, farmers raising animals for these companies — pressured by strict contracts to maintain factory-like production rates with razor-thin margins — have no flexibility to hold animals for even a few extra weeks and are deploying brutal forms of “depopulation.” One method involves shutting off barns’ ventilation systems with animals sealed indoors to die from hours of heat stress or suffocation.
Industrial animal agriculture isn’t just cruel to animals, dangerous for workers, and economically unstable for farmers — it may also become a breeding ground for the next global pandemic. While COVID-19 likely originated in wildlife, groups like the Food and Agriculture Organization and scientists around the world have long been warning that industrialized animal farming practices can increase the risks of zoonotic diseases. Industrial animal agriculture hallmarks like extreme crowding of animals, poor air quality, inadequate waste management, and reliance on antibiotics are all kindling for the brushfire of pandemics.
The real-life evidence to justify these warnings is stark and sobering. Between 1997 and 2006, highly pathogenic strains of H5N1 bird flu were linked to poultry farms in China, with a 60% mortality rate in humans who caught the virus. In 2009, the H1N1 swine flu jumped from commercially raised pigs in Mexico to humans and killed hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.
To prevent illness in stressful conditions that would typically sicken animals, many farms resort to the prevalent use — and overuse — of antibiotics. Currently, in the EU and the U.S., over 75% of all produced antibiotics are used in animal agriculture. The bacteria found in animals — Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli — are the same ones that cause illness in humans, and the drugs used by industrial farms are the same ones we use to cure those illnesses. This indiscriminate misuse of antibiotics to prevent — rather than treat— infections is vastly increasing the rate at which bacteria gain resistance. A 2019 study showed that antibiotic resistance has nearly tripled in farm animals.
As drugs lose their effectiveness on farms, they’re not working to cure human infections either. In the U.S. alone, 35,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant diseases.
This dangerous situation has long demanded a bold solution, but the pandemic has raised the stakes even higher for humans and animals, creating even more urgency but also a unique opportunity for action.
First and foremost, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) should immediately stop allowing slaughterhouses to convert to even faster slaughter speeds, which endanger animals as well as workers. The USDA must also heed the call of Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and 21 other members of Congress who recently urged the agency to block the use of the most inhumane depopulation methods. But we cannot stop there.
Congress should also promptly enact the Farm System Reform Act, ambitious legislation introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) that would put an end to factory farming by 2040. The legislation includes a phase-out plan that would provide funds to help farmers transition from the factory farm model to more humane and sustainable farming systems. The public can help by asking their congressional representatives to support and co-sponsor this vitally important bill.
These goals may seem too lofty to some, but the unprecedented dangers we now face makes this the right moment to build a more humane and resilient food system that values animals, people, and the planet.