Animal Agriculture and Human Health

Chapter 4. Foul Farms: The State of Animal Agriculture

As disturbing as the wildlife trade is in fostering the development of new infectious diseases, recent events suggest that the biggest and most imminent threat may lie much closer to home. Between 2007 and 2008, farmers in the Philippines noticed that pigs were falling sick and dying by the hundreds for unknown reasons. A subsequent investigation confirmed the presence of porcine reproductive and respiratory disease syndrome, a serious illness among pigs. But, much to the surprise of the investigators, a subtype of Ebola virus, Ebola Reston, was also discovered circulating in a sample of the pigs. This was the first time Ebola of any strain had been found in these animals. ‘We never thought that pigs could be infected’, says Pierre Rollin, an Ebola expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).Rollin believes that Ebola Reston is to blame for the pigs’ deaths because tissue studies revealed that the virus had pervaded the spleen, similar to its mode of attack in monkeys.

Ebola Reston is named after the strain that was discovered in monkeys shipped to laboratories in the USA from the Philippines on several occasions between 1989 and 1996. The first shipment of Ebola virus was discovered after hundreds of monkeys became severely ill or died in a quarantine facility owned by Hazleton Laboratories (now Covance, Inc.) in Reston, Virginia. Because this was the first confirmed instance of Ebola entering the USA, a panic swept across American health agencies. All remaining monkeys at the facility were euthanized and the building was eventually demolished. Although evidence revealed that humans were also infected, Ebola Reston proved to cause at worst only a mild flu-like illness in humans, unlike all other known strains of the virus. Thus, Ebola Reston, although deadly in monkeys, was deemed only a minor threat to us. However, new fears are rising since Ebola Reston was discovered in pigs.

The industrialization and mass production of animals for food is now among the biggest contributing factors to emerging infectious diseases over the past few decades. Pigs and other animals raised for food are critical sources of zoonotic pathogens that threaten human health and have been directly implicated in the emergence of the H5Nl avian influenza virus, the 2009 H1N1 ‘swine flu’ pandemic virus, the rise in foodborne infectious diseases, and other significant infectious pathogens and diseases. To understand how and why animal agriculture fosters the emergence of new pathogens, it helps to get a glimpse of the experiences of animals raised on modern ‘farms.’

Humans are consuming more animals than ever before. Once viewed as a luxury, meat is now becoming a dietary staple for many due to a worldwide growth in urbanized populations and affluence. Today, more than 64 billion animals are raised and killed for food worldwide annually. That means that more than nine farmed animals exist for every human at any one time. China and the USA are among the largest farmed animal producers in the world. In the USA alone, an excess of 9 billion land animals are slaughtered annually for food, approximately 1 million per hour. On average, each American eats the equivalent of 21,000 animals in his/her lifetime. And, global meat production is expected to double by 2020. Consequently, over the last half-century, a dramatic shift has taken place in the animal agriculture industry that may represent the most profound change in the relationship between humans and animals since animals were first domesticated.

In the name of efficiency, the industry has chosen to sacrifice the space and well-being of animals. Traditional farming practices in which animals were permitted to roam outdoors prior to slaughter have largely been replaced by immense, intensive animal operations. These concentrated animal-feeding operations (CAFOs) or factory farms changed the status of animals like nothing had before. The industrialized methods of raising animals for food have spread throughout much of the world. The result is that traditional farms in developing nations are being replaced at a rate of more than 4 per cent a year. The independent family farm is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Today, most animals raised for food are produced by a few immense agribusiness corporations that intensively confine animals by the hundreds or thousands in consolidated operations. This demand-driven transformation of animal agriculture is so dramatic that it has been dubbed the ‘Livestock Revolution.’

Chapter 5. Animal Agriculture: Our Health and Our Environment

Even if we could, no matter how unlikely, contain the pathogens running amok among factory farms, we are still faced with a much larger problem. This is because there are just too many animals being produced for food: animals grown for meat and dairy products account for 20 per cent of the world’s terrestrial animal biomass. To sustain this massive production requires unprecedented quantities of water, energy, land, pesticides and feed crops (crops fed to farmed animals). In exchange for all these depleted resources, we get polluted water, air and land, and perhaps one of the most significant climate transformations in human history.

In September 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit the eastern part of North Carolina, acting as a catalyst for the environmental disaster that followed. As many as 50 animal waste lagoons, some of them several acres in size, filled with floodwaters and overflowed. This manure flowed into the surrounding wetlands and groundwater aquifers, resulting in massive contamination and pollution of drinking water. In addition to multi-antibiotic-resistant fecal bacteria and antibiotics, excess levels of nitrogen nutrients were discovered in the groundwater near some of the farms following the flooding. North Carolina is the second largest pig producer in the USA; pig production in that state alone exploded in the 1990s, growing from 2.6 million pigs in 1988 to almost 10 million today, most of them confined to factory farms. The aftermath of Hurricane Floyd highlighted the disturbing environmental implications of industrial animal agriculture.

In the USA, animal agriculture is responsible for 32 and 33 per cent, respectively, of the nitrogen and phosphorus loads found in freshwater sources. The problem with these nutrients is that, like manure, there are too much of them. The application of manure to cropland and leakage from manure lagoons cause nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients to run off agricultural land and into waterways. Excess nutrient loading of waterways causes eutrophication, or overfertilization, leading to loss of oxygen, algal blooms and massive die-offs of fish and other animal populations. Most marine algae are harmless. However, the growth of several toxic species of algae is boosted by nutrient supersaturation. These species produce potent neurotoxins that can be transferred through the food web, where they adversely affect and kill fish, birds, marine mammals and humans that either directly come in contact with or consume them.

One harmful species, Pfiesteria, is believed to be the cause of massive fish kills along the eastern shore of the USA. It produces a potent neurotoxin and an epidermal toxin that have been linked to significant neurological illness and skin lesions in humans. Additionally, nitrogen in manure and liquid waste can contaminate drinking water. These nitrates, which are associated with human health risks, have been identified by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the most widespread agricultural contaminant in drinking water wells. Elevated nitrate levels in water can cause severe methemoglobinemia (‘blue baby syndrome’), particularly in infants. This is a frequently fatal condition in which the blood has a reduced capacity to carry oxygen.

Excess nitrates and eutrophication render water unfit for drinking. Compounding the eutrophication of our waterways, animal agriculture also consumes 70 per cent of the freshwater supply and is among the most damaging industries to the earth’s increasingly scarce water resources, contributing significantly to water pollution. According to the EPA, agriculture, is ‘the leading contributor to identified water quality impairments in the nation’s rivers and streams, lakes, ponds, and reservoirs’. In excess of 129,000 miles of streams and rivers and more than 3.2 million acres of lakes have been impaired as a result of agriculture, a significant part due to animal waste and factory farms. The primary pollutants associated with animal waste are nutrients (particularly nitrogen and phosphorus), organic matter, solids and odorous/volatile compounds.

Animal waste also contains pesticides, hormones and, of course, pathogens and antibacterials. Pollutants in animal waste can impact water supplies through several possible pathways, including surface runoff, erosion, spills, direct discharge to surface waters and leaching into soil and groundwater. Atmospheric transport is another major pathway by which nitrogen and other pollutants are deposited back to the land and waterways. More than 80 per cent of ammonia emissions in Europe are generated by animal agriculture. Factory farm waste emits a number of pollutants of concern to human health, including heavy metals, volatile gases, methane, nitrous oxide and hydrogen sulphide.

Why Our Health Depends on Treating Animals Better

An international group of scientists recently ended a year-long moratorium on controversial research on potentially deadly strains of the H5N1 avian flu virus. The purpose of the research was to engineer strains of H5N1 in order to understand how it might gain the ability to spread easily among people.

Regardless of whether or not this research continues, you can bet one thing: Our risk for a deadly form of the “bird flu” virus and other pathogens remain high as long as we don’t improve our treatment of animals.

Read full article here.

How Protecting Animals Benefits Us, Too

Do we need to make a choice to either protect animals or humans? This is certainly what those who profit from hurting animals would like everyone to believe.  Advocates of animal experimentation especially employ the fallacy of a false dilemma: that we must choose to care about human suffering or about animal suffering, and that we cannot do both. This erroneous thinking leads us to believe that we must either experiment on a mouse (or a dog or monkey …) or we must experiment on a human child, implying that we are forced to make a choice—it’s the animals or us.

However, not only is this notion that we must either protect animals or humans not true, in fact, the opposite is true. The human plight is inextricably tied with that of other animals.

Read the full article in Vegan Publishers

Chicks in a factory

We Are Not Safe From Bird Flu as Long as Factory Farms Exist

CNN reports that Cambodia is seeing a spike in the number of deaths due to the H5N1 strain of bird flu. In a related case, Mexico recently slaughtered more than 1 million chickens infected with the H7N3 strain of bird flu. Despite the increase in bird flu in Cambodia, H5N1 is currently not very contagious among humans (most people who contracted the virus were in direct contact with sick farmed animals), and H7N3 is not known to cause harm to humans.
In spite of our current low risk, it is just a matter of time before H5N1, H7N3 or another influenza strain evolves into a dangerous form that results in a pandemic. And the events in Mexico and Cambodia beg the question: Are we ever going to be safe from bird flu?

As long as we continue to treat animals raised for food poorly, the answer is a definite “no.”

Read more

How the Top Ten Animal Stories of the Decade Reveal the Connection Between Animal Welfare and Public Health

This past decade was, arguably, the decade of animals. More news stories covered animal welfare issues than ever before and some of the major events of the past decade involved animals. Animal protection has become a considerable social issue. But there is more to animal protection than the well-being of animals; human welfare is integrally tied with it and during this past decade, this connection was highlighted in unprecedented ways. The following top ten animal stories of the past ten years, listed in no particular order, reveal just how connected human and animal welfare and health are:

1. Michael Vick and dog fighting. Vick’s conviction for running a dog fighting ring brought unparalleled attention to the underground world of animal fighting and the immense cruelty involved. The human welfare connection was also illustrated as animal fighting is associated with other illegal crimes. Up to two-thirds of those who commit animal cruelty also commit at least one other criminal offense, including violence towards other humans, particularly women and children.

2. Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, the world watched, horrified, as many people refused to evacuate their homes and in some cases, risk death to avoid losing their companion animals (who were not welcome in local shelters). Indeed, the most common reason people return to evacuation sites is to rescue their animal. Post-Katrina studies show that the loss of companion animals worsened the mental trauma many people suffered. This was a wake-up call for emergency rescue agencies to take animal rescue seriously.

3. and 4. Swine and Avian influenzas. It’s now apparent that what happens on the farm doesn’t always stay on the farm. When avian (H5N1) influenza spread rapidly across poultry farms in Asia in 2003 and jumped the species barrier to infect humans, questions were raised about the potential for the next pandemic to originate from animal farms. The current swine (H1N1) flu pandemic, though relatively mild, confirms that animal agriculture can play a significant role in the emergence of new, deadlier strains of flu viruses. Animals raised for food are increasingly crammed into intensive animal operations or “factory farms”, living in profoundly unhygienic and stressful conditions. The animal’s reduced immunity, due to prolonged stress and high crowding, create perfect breeding grounds for new diseases.

5. and 6. Exotic pet attacks. The horrendous 2009 attack of a woman in Connecticut by a “pet” chimpanzee and the 2003 tiger attack against Roy Horn of the “Siegfried and Roy” animal act underscored the dangers of keeping exotic animals as pets or for entertainment. No one knows why these particular animals attacked, but exotic animals raised as pets or used for entertainment are too often kept in deplorable or inadequate housing conditions or are subjected to other forms of abuse. Exotic animals can’t be handled safely and can carry infectious diseases, posing immense public health risks.

7. Hallmark Meat Packing investigation. The California cow slaughter plant investigation revealed egregious abuses of cows too sick to stand (labeled “downed” cows), leading to the largest meat recall in U.S history in 2008. Despite regulations against the use of downed cows for food because of fears that they may be sick with bovine spongiform encephalopathy or “mad cow” disease, these cows were slaughtered and sold for human consumption. Considerable concern was raised about the safety of our food supply, particularly because approximately 1 million land animals are slaughtered for food every hour in the U.S, making regulatory oversight formidable.

8. The melamine pet food contamination. The 2007 worldwide recall of pet food imported from China contaminated with melamine followed after possibly thousands of animals died. The public outrage that ensued was tremendous. Additionally, since some of the tainted pet food was also fed to animals processed into human food, the need for greater regulatory oversight of food fed to animals for the protection of both humans and animals became evident.

9. The health benefits of companion animals. While not a single news story, this past decade saw more published reports of the benefits animal companions provide for human health than ever before. From lowering blood pressure, stress, and cardiovascular disease risk, to facilitating communication by children with autism, to helping people with Alzheimer’s disease, numerous medical studies revealed how mutually beneficial the human-animal bond is.

10. Climate change. Perhaps one of the most significant news stories of our time. Partly due to reports from the Pew Charitable Trust in 2008 and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2006 and, most recently, to the highly publicized book “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Saffran Foer, the connection between what we eat and climate change is now widely acknowledged. The unprecedented worldwide demand for meat and the subsequent rise in immense, intensive animal operations is impacting our climate in significant ways. In addition to severely compromising animal welfare, modern animal agricultural practice is one of the main contributors of greenhouse gas emissions and environmental pollution. The human health impact is tremendous.

These news stories, viewed together, tell a larger story, one of human and animal interconnectedness, and that public health and animal welfare are not separate issues.

If we really want to promote human well-being, we can’t forget the animals.

This piece was originally posted in the Huffington Post