Cows, Covid and Climate: How Our Broken Food System is Contributing to our Current Crises

It turns out that a short cold snap in December was the only thing that stopped 2020 from being the warmest year in recorded history, coming in a couple of a hundredths of a degree cooler than the hot winds of 2016. But when you consider the other human-caused churning of these past 12 months — domestic and global political unrest, the death and economic disruption of the pandemic, and a rolling series of natural disasters — no one would be faulted for claiming that the world is changing before our eyes.

The end of the calendar year does not provide a hard stop to the series of problems confronting humanity. If we don’t want to spend each successive year simply hoping that the next one will be better than the last, we’d better begin to tackle some of our most pressing and ongoing problems. And there’s no better place to start than with our fundamentally broken food system.

Our food system has shifted significantly over the past several decades away from sustainable, diversified and more humane methods of meat production to an industrialized factory farm approach where animals are kept confined throughout their lives before being brought to slaughterhouses owned by a handful of corporate conglomerates, led by JBS, Tyson, and Smithfield. Today in the United States, more than 9 billion farm animals — accounting for 95 percent of U.S. meat production — are raised in these cramped environments not well suited for sustaining life.

While the public and experts alike rightly point their fingers at live wildlife markets as the incubators of the pandemic that caused people to lock their doors and stay inside their homes for months, the fact is that our own U.S. industrialized meat production system is a comparable threat when it comes to the germination and spread of other zoonotic diseases. As Michael Greger, M.D., the author of a study on the recent avian flu puts it, “If you actually want to create global pandemics, then build factory farms.”

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million Americans fall ill every year from foodborne diseases. Over 128,000 of those people go to the hospital, while 3,000 end up dead. About 40 percent of illness-causing bacteria are on or in the meat we eat. As the livestock sector becomes even more consolidated and the individual operations bigger and more intensive, more virulent strains and previously unknow pathogens are emerging. Two decades ago, a particularly deadly strain of E. coli struck a chain of fast food hamburger restaurants in the western U.S. sickening hundreds and killing four children, and experts predict more of that kind of virulence with the current set-up of our food production system.

Under the Trump administration, USDA dismissed these risks and charged ahead with more deregulation of the meat industry. Line speeds at both hog and chicken slaughterhouses were significantly increased. Where before processing plants could kill up to 1,100 hogs per hour, there is now no limit in place; profit-driven plants are free to slaughter as many hogs as machines and overworked line workers can handle. In poultry slaughterhouses, the line speed is 175 birds per minute killed and sent down the line for inspection. Combined with a sharp decrease in federal food safety inspectors on site checking for diseased and ill animals – replacing health and safety workers with company flaks — our government is providing the blueprint for a new pathogen.

Factory farms also promote antibiotic resistant strains of pathogens as severely confined and stressed animals are dosed with antibiotics to ward off infections that stir in these fetid environments. CDC warned just last year that we are already in a post-antibiotic world, with one person in the U.S. dying every 15 minutes because of an infection that antibiotics can no longer treat.

And while much of our climate change efforts are focused on fossil fuels, our food system is also fueling global warming at an alarming rate, contributing 20-30 percent of greenhouse gases to our atmosphere, the same as our electricity and heat production sector. Factory farms are responsible for 37% of methane emissions, a pollutant that has at least 84 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Cattle operations are responsible for most of those methane emissions; in dairy-intensive states, like California, the industry is responsible for 55 percent of the state’s methane releases. The latest International Panel on Climate Change recognizes that if we are going to avoid the catastrophic impacts of a 2-degree Celsius temperature increase, we must overhaul our current system of animal agriculture and also modify our food choices and opt for a more plant-based diet.

Human-caused climate change is also driving zoonotic diseases. Warming temperatures, deforestation, weather shifts and other aspects of global warming are extending the lifespans of pathogens and forcing animals and people into more interactions where a micro-biological exchange may occur. So not only are our meat production, processing, and consumption practices generating deadly diseases, they are creating conditions where viruses can more easily replicate, mutate and cause even more harm to public health.

As a high-level staffer at the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization states, “…we cannot deal with human health, animal health, and ecosystem health in isolation from each other – we have to look at them together, and address the drivers of disease emergence, persistence and spread, rather than simply fighting back against diseases after they emerge.”

It is not enough to look to eliminate fossil fuel from our energy diet, we must also take factory farmed meat off our plates. From animal welfare, to environmental and public health, the economy and workers’ rights, this industrialized model of meat production that now dominates our rural landscapes is having devastating impacts, with a strong intersection with two of the biggest crises we now face — the intensity of climate change and the spread of zoonotic diseases.

Addressing climate change and the threat of ongoing and future pandemics means moving away from our industrialized system of meat production and the systemic abuse of animals. A more sustainable, humane system of agriculture is not only possible, it is essential.

We need less in the way of factory farms. And more family farmers on the land. We need less in the way of confinement agriculture and more actual farming and animal care. We need to move away from monoculture and opt for a more diversified set of crops we plant. We need less meat, milk and cheese and more plant-based options to sustain our health and that of the planet.

Scott Edwards is General Counsel for the Center for a Humane Economy.

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