The increased cost of eggs has been in the news, but the cause has largely been absent in mainstream media. A global pandemic of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), a form of bird flu (H5N1), has resulted in the deaths of over 43 million hens in the egg industry, causing a drop in the supply of eggs and higher prices for consumers. While industry and government officials are feverishly working on getting this outbreak under control, the more significant issue is that confining animals by the billions in cruel and stressful conditions exacerbates the spread of disease. The problem is getting worse, and agribusiness needs to stop distracting consumers with messages about high egg prices and be held accountable for its irresponsible conduct.
On factory farms across the US, animals used to produce meat, milk and eggs for human consumption are crowded by the thousands in unsanitary conditions, and they’re fed a steady diet of pharmaceuticals to ward off the resulting illness. This helps keep animals productive and alive long enough to reach market, benefiting agribusiness in the short term, but it is contributing to the development of more virulent forms of resistant pathogens that jeopardize the wellbeing of both human and nonhuman animals. As a study published in 2018 warned: “The golden age of antibiotics (the 1950s through 1970s) marked the beginning of the arms race between humans and bacteria. Antimicrobial resistance is now among the greatest threats to human health.”
And if antibiotic-resistant bacteria aren’t scary enough, viruses also mutate and evolve and can jump between species. The current bird flu pandemic has claimed its first human fatality, an 11-year-old girl in Cambodia, and it’s also been detected to spread within mammals on mink farms. We don’t know the full risks posed by this and other zoonoses, especially with the continuous evolution of new variants, but what we know so far, according to the World Health Organization, is: “Humans can be infected with avian, swine, and other zoonotic influenza viruses, such as avian influenza virus subtypes A(H5N1), A(H7N9), and A(H9N2) and swine influenza virus subtypes A(H1N1), A(H1N2) and A(H3N2).”
Our recent experience and challenges with the global Covid pandemic should serve as an important reminder that humans, like other animals, are susceptible to communicable diseases from other species. The world’s top scientists and experts have had limited success controlling Covid or even determining its origin with certainty, and it’s impossible to predict what new variants of zoonotic diseases will develop or the full extent of these emerging risks.
Science is a valuable tool for understanding our world and ourselves, including how microbes and other animals and organisms interact, but it is limited. It can reduce complex multitudes of interrelated issues to a narrow set of empirical measurements, and it can also be biased. Researchers working for industries with particular interests tend to focus on narrow-minded objectives without considering the broader contexts and implications. Within animal agriculture, science is focused on increasing profitability by manipulating genetics, formulating feed and other inputs to maximize productivity, and engineering systems to increase the speed and efficiency of raising and processing billions of animals for food. Chickens, pigs, cows and other individuals exploited in agriculture are stretched to their biological limits, which increases their susceptibility to disease when their bodies and immune systems break down.
When diseases in animals threaten industry profits, agribusiness is motivated to act. However, when the costs associated with animal diseases and deaths are less than the financial benefits generated by the harsh system that creates them, the industry considers diseases and fatalities to be acceptable economic losses. For example, when chickens are pushed to grow six times faster than before, the system is profitable even if a significant percentage of them die. Shockingly, even without diseases like HPAI, hundreds of millions of farm animals in the US are expected to die before reaching slaughter every year due to the realities of a system that puts profit above animal health or welfare.
The factory farming industry breeds misery, disease and destruction. It is unhealthy and unsustainable, and it receives billions of dollars of government subsidies. This needs to change. We can feed people more efficiently and support biodiversity and more resilient ecosystems by eating plant foods directly instead of growing feed for farm animals. In the US, 10 times more land is used to feed farm animals than humans.
We can lighten our footprint, lower ecological stresses, and lessen the risk of disease in humans and other animals by ending factory farming and shifting toward plant-based agriculture. Preventing the intolerable suffering and needless deaths of billions of animals every year would also benefit humanity.
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